Chapter Eight: Shop Like a Man
When they were a client I used to tell Woolworth's, if you would just hold Dad's Day at your stores once a week, you'd bring in a lot more money.
They didn't listen. You may have heard.
Men and women differ in just about every other way, so why shouldn't they shop differently, too? The conventional wisdom on male shoppers is that they don't especially like to do it, which is why they don't do much of it. It's a struggle just to get them to be patient company for a woman while she shops. As a result, the entire shopping experience — from packaging design to advertising to merchandising to store design and fixturing — is generally geared toward the female shopper.
Women do have a greater affinity for what we think of as shopping — walking at a relaxed pace through stores, examining merchandise, comparing products and values, interacting with sales staff, asking questions, trying things on and ultimately making purchases. Most purchasing traditionally falls to women, and they usually do it willingly — even when shopping for the mundane necessities, even when the experience brings no particular pleasure, women tend to do it in dependable, agreeable fashion. Women take pride in their ability to shop prudently and well. In a study we ran of baby products, women interviewed insisted that they knew the price of products by heart, without even having to look. (Upon further inquiry, we discovered that they were mostly wrong.) As women's roles change, so does their shopping behavior — they're becoming a lot more like men in that regard — but they're still the primary buyer in the American marketplace.
In general, men, in comparison, seem like loose cannons. We've timed enough shoppers to know that men always move faster than women through a store's aisles. Men spend less time looking, too. In many settings it's hard to get them to look at anything they hadn't intended to buy They usually don't like asking where things are, or any other questions, for that matter. (They shop the way they drive.) If a man can't find the section he's looking for, he'll wheel about once or twice, then give up and leave the store without ever asking for help. You can watch men just shut down.
You'll see a man impatiently move through a store to the section he wants, pick something up, and then, almost abruptly, he's ready to buy, having taken no apparent joy in the process of finding. You've practically got to get out of his way. When a man takes clothing into a dressing room, the only thing that stops him from buying it is if it doesn't fit. Women, on the other hand, try things on as only part of the consideration process, and garments that fit just fine may still be rejected on other grounds. in one study, we found that 65 percent of male shoppers who tried something on bought it, as opposed to 25 percent of female shoppers. This is a good argument for positioning fitting rooms nearer the men's department than the women's, if they are shared accommodations. If they are not, men's dressing rooms should be very clearly marked, because if he has to search for it, he may just decide it's not worth the trouble.
Here's another statistical comparison: Eighty-six percent of women look at price tags when they shop. Only 72 percent of men do. For a man, ignoring the price tag is almost a measure of his virility. As a result, men are far more easily upgraded than are women shoppers. They are also far more suggestible than women — men seem so anxious to get out of the store that they'll say yes to almost anything.
Now, a shopper such as that could be seen as more trouble than he's worth. But he could also be seen as a potential source of profits, especially given his lack of discipline. Either way, men now do more purchasing than ever before. And that will continue to grow. As they stay single longer than ever, they learn to shop for things their fathers never had to buy. And because they marry women who work long and hard too, they will be forced to shoulder more of the burden of shopping. The manufacturers, retailers and display designers who pay attention to male ways, and are willing to adapt the shopping experience to them, will have an edge in the twenty-first century.
The great traditional arena for male shopping behavior has always been the supermarket. It's here, with thousands of products all within easy reach, that you can witness the carefree abandon and restless lack of discipline for which the gender is known. In one supermarket study, we counted how many shoppers came armed with lists. Almost all of the women had them. Less than a quarter of the men did. Any wife who's watching the family budget knows better than to send her husband to the supermarket unchaperoned. Giving him a vehicle to commandeer, even if it is just a shopping cart, only emphasizes the potential for guyness in the experience. Throw a couple of kids in with Dad and you've got a lethal combination; he's notoriously bad at saying no when there's grocery acquisitioning to be done. Part of being Daddy is being the provider, after all. It goes to the heart of a man's self-image.
I've spent hundreds of hours of my life watching men moving through supermarkets. One of my favorite video moments starred a dad carrying his little daughter on his shoulders. In the snacks aisle, the girl gestures toward the animal crackers display. Dad grabs a box off the shelf, opens it and hands it up — without even a thought to the fact that his head and shoulders are about to be dusted with cookie crumbs. It's hard to imagine Mom in such a wanton scenario. Another great lesson in male shopping came about watching a man and his two small sons pass through the cereal aisle. When the boys plead for their favorite brand, he pulls down a box and instead of carefully opening it along the reclosable tab, he just tips the top, knowing full well that once the boys start in, there won't be any need to reclose it.
Supermarkets are places of high impulse buying for both sexes — fully 60 to 70 percent of purchases there were unplanned, grocery industry studies have shown us. But men are particularly suggestible to the entreaties of children as well as eye-catching displays.
There's another profligate male behavior that invariably shows itself at supermarkets, something we see over and over on the video we shoot at the registers: The man almost always pays. Especially when a man and woman are shopping together, he insists on whipping out his wad and forking it over, lest the cashier mistakenly think it's the woman of the house who's bringing home the bacon. No wonder retailers commonly call men wallet carriers. Or why the conventional wisdom is, sell to the woman, close to the man. Because while the man may not love the experience of shopping, he gets a definite thrill from the experience of paying. It allows him to feel in charge even when he isn't. Stores that sell prom gowns depend on this. Generally, when Dad's along, the girl will get a pricier frock than if just Mom was there with her.
In some categories, men shoppers put women to shame. We ran a study for a store where 17 percent of the male customers we interviewed said they visited the place more than once a week! Almost onequarter of the men there said they had left the house that day with no intention of visiting the store — they just found themselves wandering in out of curiosity. The fact that it was a computer store may have had something to do with it, of course. Computer hardware and software have taken the place of cars and stereo equipment as the focus of male love of technology and gadgetry. Clearly, most of the visits to the store were informationgathering forays. On the videotape, we watched the men reading intently the software packaging and any other literature or signage available. The store was where men bought software, but it was also where they did most of their learning about it. This underscores another male shopping trait — just as they hate to ask directions, they like to get their information firsthand, preferably from written materials, instructional videos or computer screens.
A few years back we ran a study for a wireless phone provider that was developing a prototype retail store. And we found that men and women used the place in very different ways. Women would invariably walk right up to the sales desk and ask staffers questions about the phones and the various deals being offered. Men, however, went directly to the phone displays and the signs that explained the agreements. They then took brochures and application forms and left the store — all without ever speaking to an employee. When these men returned to the store, it was to sign up. The women, though, on average required a third visit to the store, and more consultation, before they were ready to close.
For the most part, men are still the ones who take the lead when shopping for cars (though women have a big say in most new-car purchases), and men and women perform the division of labor you'd expect when buying for the home: She buys anything that goes inside, and he buys everything that goes outside — mower and other gardening and lawn-care equipment, barbecue grill, water hose and so on. This is changing as the percentage of female-headed households rises, but it still holds.
Even when men aren't shopping, they figure prominently in the experience. We know that across the board, how much customers buy is a direct result of how much time they spend in a store. And our research has shown over and over that when a woman is in a store with a man, she'll spend less time there than when she's alone, with another woman or even with children. Here's the actual breakdown of average shopping time from a study we performed at one branch of a national housewares chain:
woman shopping with a female companion: 8 minutes, 15 seconds
woman with children: 7 minutes, 19 seconds
woman alone: 5 minutes, 2 seconds
woman with man: 4 minutes, 41 seconds
In each case, what's happening seems dear: When two women shop together, they talk, advise, suggest and consult to their hearts' content, hence the long time in the store; with the kids, she's partly consumed with herding them along and keeping them entertained; alone, she makes efficient use of her time. But with him -well, he makes it plain that he's bored and antsy and likely at any moment to go off and sit in the car and listen to the radio or stand outside and watch girls. So the woman's comfort level plummets when he's by her side; she spends the entire trip feeling anxious and rushed. If he can somehow be occupied, though she'll be a happier, more relaxed shopper. And she'll spend more time and money. There are two main strategies for coping with the presence of men in places where serious shopping is being done.
The first one is passive restraint, which is not to say handcuffs. Stores that sell mainly to women should all be figuring out some way to engage the interest of men. If I owned The Limited or Victoria's Secret, I'd have a place where a woman could check her husband — like a coat. There already exists a traditional space where men have always felt comfortable waiting around. it's called the barbershop. instead of some ratty old chairs and back issues of Playboy and Boxing Illustrated, maybe there could be comfortable seats facing a big-screen TV tuned to ESPN or the cable channel that runs the bass-fishing program. Even something that simple would go a long way toward relieving wifely anxiety, but it's possible to imagine more: Sports Illustrated in-store programming, for instance — a documentary on the making of the swimsuit issue, perhaps, or highlights of last weekend's NFL action.
If I were opening a brand-new store where women could shop comfortably, I'd find a location right next to an emporium devoted to male desire — a computer store, for instance, somewhere he could happily kill half an hour. Likewise, if I were opening a computer software store, I'd put it next to a women's clothing shop and guarantee myself hordes of grateful male browsers.
But you could also try to sell to your captive audience. A women's clothing store could prepare a video catalog designed especially for men buying gifts — items like scarves or robes rather than shoes or trousers. Gift certificates would sell easily there; he already knows that she likes the store. Victoria's Secret could really go to town with a video catalog for men. They could even stage a little fashion show. (The only precaution you'd need to take is in where to place such a section. You want customers to be able to find it easily, but you don't want it so near the entrance that the gaze of window shoppers falls on six lumpy guys in windbreakers slumped in BarcaLoungers watching TV)
The second, and ultimately more satisfying, strategy would be to find a way to get the man involved in shopping. Not the easiest thing to do in certain categories, but not impossible either.
We were doing a study for Pfaltzgraff, the big stoneware dish manufacturer and retailer. Their typical customer will fall in love with one particular pattern and collect the entire set — many, many pieces, everything from dinner plate and coffee cup to mustard pot, serving platter and napkin ring. It is very timeconsuming to shop the store, especially when you figure in how long it takes to ring the items up and wrap them so that they don't break. just the kind of situation designed to drive most men nuts. A typical sale at Pfaltzgraff outlet stores can run into the hundreds of dollars — all the more reason to find a way to get men involved.
As we watched the videotape, we noticed that for some unknown reason men were tending to wander over toward the glassware section of the store. They were steering clear of the gravy boats and the spoon rests and drifting among the tumblers and wineglasses. At one point we saw two guys meander over to the beer glasses, where one of them picked one up and with the other hand grabbed an imaginary beer tap, Pulled it and tilted the glass as if to fill it. And I thought, wen, of course — when company's over for dinner and the woman's cooking in the kitchen, what does the man do? He makes drinks. That's his socially acceptable role. And so he's interested in all the accoutrements, all the tools of the bartender trade — every different type of glass and what it's for, and the corkscrew and ice tongs and knives and shakers. They're being guys about it.
My first thought was that the stores should put in fake beer taps, like props, for men to play with. We ended up advising them to pull together all the glassware into a barware section — to put up on the wall some big graphic, like a photo of a man pulling a beer, or making some martinis in a nice chrome shaker. Something so that men would walk in and see that there was a section meant for them, somewhere they could shop. All the bottle openers in the different patterns, say, would be stocked there, too. And because men prefer to get their information from reading, the store could put up a chart showing what type of glass is used for what-the big balloons and the long stems and the flutes and the rocks glass and steins.
And by doing all that you could take the man — who had been seen as a drag on business and an inconvenience to the primary shopper — and turn him into a customer himself.. Or at least an interested bystander.
We did a study for Thomasville, the furniture maker, and thought that there, too, getting the man more involved would make it easier to sell such big-ticket items. The solution was simple: Create graphic devices, like displays and posters, showing the steps that go into making the furniture, and use visuals, like cross sections and exploded views, to prove that in addition to looking good, the pieces were well made. Emphasizing construction would do a lot toward overcoming male resistance to the cost of new furniture, but the graphics would also give men something to study while their wives examined upholstery and styling.
One product where men consistently outshop women is beer. And that's in every type of setting -supermarket or convenience store, men buy the beer. (They also buy the junk food, the chips and pretzels and nuts and other entertainment food.) So we advised a supermarket client to hold a beer-tasting every Saturday at 3 P.M., right there in the beer aisle. They could feature some microbrew or a new beer from one of the major brewers, it didn't matter. The tastings would probably help sell beer, but even that wasn't the point. it would be worth it just because it would bring more men into the store. And it would help transform the supermarket into a more male-oriented place.
That should be the goal of every retailer today. All aspects of business are going to have to anticipate how men's social roles change, and the future is going to belong to whoever gets there first. A good general rule: Take any category where women now predominate, and figure out how to make it appealing to men.
Look, for instance, at what's happened to the American kitchen over the past decade or so. Once upon a time Mom did all the grocery shopping and all the cooking. Now Mom works. As a result, men have to know how to cook, dean and do laundry — it's gone from being cute to being necessary. Spenser, Robert Parker's tough detective hero, cooks. A man in the kitchen is sexy.
Is it a coincidence that as that change took place, kitchen appliances have become so butch? Once upon a time you chose from avocado and golden harvest when selecting a refrigerator or a stove. Now the trendiest stoves are industrial-strength six-burner numbers with open gas grills, and the refrigerators are huge, featureless boxes of stainless steel, aluminum and glass. If you go into a fancy kitchenware store like Williams-Sonoma you'll see that a popular gadget is the little blowtorch used for crystallizing the top of cr&me briil&e. Have Americans just now fallen in love with preparing elaborate, fatty French desserts? Or does cooking just seem more appealing to men when it involves firing up your own personal flamethrower?
(Similarly, as women stay single longer and sometimes become single more than once, the old-fashioned, boys-only hardware store is being killed off by Home Depot, where female homeowners can become toolhappy do-it-yourselfers in a nurturing, gender-nonspecific environment.)
Look at how microwave ovens are sold — the most prominent feature on the description sheet is the wattage. Likewise, when we interviewed men shopping for vacuum cleaners and asked which feature was most important, their (predictable) answer: "Suck." Read: Power. As a result, vacuum makers now boast amperage. in both cases, home appliances have gotten more macho as men have gotten less so. They seem determined to meet somewhere in the middle.
Even washday miracles and other household products are being reimagined with men in mind. I can't say for sure how Procter & Gamble or Lever Brothers came to their decisions, but why else would paper towels be called Bounty or laundry detergents be called Bold, except to make themselves respectable items for men to bring to the checkout? How many women wish they had Hefty Bags? Now: How many men? The manliest monikers used to go on cars; now they go on suds. A very successful soap introduction in the '90s wasn't anything frilly or lavender. It was Lever 2000, a name that would also sound right on a computer or a new line of power tools. I'd drive a Lever 2000 any day.
Look beyond shopping to the most elemental expressions of contemporary male desire — just think of the difference between Marilyn Monroe and Elle Macpherson. Elle's biceps are probably bigger than Frank Sinatra's and Bobby Kennedy's combined. She's downright muscle-bound and hipless compared with the pinups of three decades ago.
Men have always bought their own suits and shoes, but women, traditionally, shopped for everything in between. Especially they bought men's socks and underwear. Now, though, that's changing-men are more involved in their clothing, and women have enough to do without buying boxer shorts. In Kmart menswear departments, you'll still sometimes find a female-male ratio of 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1. But in expensive apparel stores, among more affluent men, males shopping for menswear now — finally — outnumber females. We caught a signal moment in the life of the modern American male on videotape. A man was browsing thoughtfully at an underwear display when he suddenly reached around, grabbed a handful of his waistband, pulled it out and craned his neck so he could learn — finally! — what size shorts he wears. Try to imagine a woman who doesn't know her underwear size. Impossible. Someday soon, we can all hope, every man will know his.
(Conversely, I am told that women frequently won't buy lingerie without trying it on — over their own, I am assured. I don't know if I'll live long enough to ever see a man take a package of Fruit of the Looms into a fitting room.)
As women stop buying men's underwear, will men begin buying women's? I met a jeweler who told me, "A lot of my business is with men trying to buy their way back inside the house." Many a husband or beau would choose fancy lingerie or jewelry as gift items, but the stores that sell them, and the merchandise itself, make it daunting. If he can't remember his own size, how can he remember hers, especially when she has bra and underpants to think about, not to mention robe, nightgown, etcetera? And how can he be sure he's buying the ring or necklace she wants, in a color that suits her? We frequently see men tentatively enter these lairs of femininity, cast anxious glances around, maybe study an item or two, and then flee in fear and uncertainty. Salesclerks have to be trained to lure these men in like the skittish beasts they are. Making a personal shopper available for heavy-duty hand-holding isn't a bad idea, especially considering the costliness of jewelry or even lingerie.
There also must be a way to simplify apparel sizes to make such crossbuying possible. Perhaps the simplest solution would be for women to register their sizes at clothing stores of their liking, then just point their men in the right direction. The first store that tries this is going to benefit from lots of latent desire among men to buy frilly underthings.
Another gender-related problem that clothing retailers have to solve is this: How do you subtly tell shoppers where the men's and women's apparel is in a store that sells both? Not so long ago it was unthinkable that men's and women's clothing would be sold side by side, from the same site. That wall was knocked down in the '60s, but some of the bugs still need to be worked out. The cueing now being used, for instance, even in dual-gender pioneers such as The Gap and J. Crew, doesn't always work, as you can tell when you suddenly realize that you spent ten minutes browsing through shoes, sweaters or jeans meant for the other sex.
Remember when the only men who saw babies being born were obstetricians? Today the presence of Dad in the delivery room is almost as required as Mom's. Men are going to have to be accommodated as they redefine their role as fathers. It's a seismic change that's being felt on the shopping floor just like everywhere else.
For example, almost no man of my father's generation had the habit of loading Junior, a bottle or two and some diapers into the stroller and going out for a Saturday morning jaunt. Today it's almost a clich6. That's why progressive men's rooms now feature baby changing stations, and it's why the McDonald's commercials invariably show Dad and the kids piling in — sans Mom, who's probably spending Saturday at the office. (Mom won't let them order Big Macs anyway.) This isn't just an American phenomenon, either — my informal Saturday observation of Milan's most fashionable districts detected that roughly half of all baby strollers were being pushed by Papa.
We tested a prototype jeans section at a department store in Boston, part of an effort to improve the store's appeal to men in their twenties and thirties. We caught video of a young man walking down the aisle toward the section, accompanied by his wife and baby, whose stroller he pushed. They reached the jeans, and he dearly wanted to shop the shelves on the wall. But there were racks of clothing standing between him and the jeans, positioned so close together that he couldn't nudge the stroller past. You can see him thinking through his choice — do I leave my wife and child in the aisle just to buy jeans? He did what most people would do in that situation. He skipped the pants. You'd be amazed at how much of America's aggregate selling floor is still offlimits to anyone pushing a stroller. This is the equivalent of barring a large percentage of all shoppers in their twenties and thirties.
Two decades ago it was the rare father who ever bought clothing for the little ones; today it's more common to see men shopping the toddler section. Clothing manufacturers haven't caught up with this yet, however, as evidenced by the fact that children's sizes are the most confusing in all of apparel — guaranteed to frustrate all but the most parental of shoppers. The day that size corresponds directly to the age of the child is when men will be able to pull even more of the weight for outfitting the kids. It'll be Dad who springs for the outrageous indulgences here, too — the velvet smoking jacket for his son or the miniature prom gown for his daughter.
And when Saturday morning rolls around and Pop goes to pack the bottles and zwieback and diapers and baby powder and ointment and wipes and all the rest of that stuff, what does he put it in? Not the big pink nylon bag his wife lugs. In fact, he's probably disposed against any of the available options — even a plain black diaper bag says Mommy. But what if he could choose a Swiss Army diaper bag? How about a nylon Nike one that looks just like his gym bag? Even better, what if he could push a studly Harley-Davidson-brand baby stroller that came with a built-in black leather diaper bag?. The whole baby category needs to be reinvented.
Other traditional female strongholds can also accommodate men, but it's got to be on masculine terms. You've got to be aware of the wimp factor. There are many stores where the floors and the walls and everything hanging on them whisper loudly to the foolhardy male trespasser, "Get the hell out of here — you don't belong!" Near my office there's a store that sells dishes and glasses and such, and it's remarkable because I can walk in and not feel like a bull in a china shop. Whereas in Bloomingdale's Royal Doulton section, I feel as though I'm back in my grandmother's dining room, and it's the grandmother who scared me.
There are other such places that men would gladly shop — actually want and even need to shop — if only they felt just a little bit wanted. For example, there are more health and grooming products for men than ever. But if you look at how they're sold, you see that most men will never become avid buyers.
in the chain drugstores and supermarket sections where these products are sold, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly feminine. Shampoo, soap and other products that can be used by either sex are invariably packaged and named with the assumption that women will be doing all the buying. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The products made especially for men, like shaving cream, hair ointment and deodorant, are stocked in a dinky little section sandwiched in among all the fragrant female goods. No-man's-land, in other words, so how's a guy to shop it?
I can think of one item in particular where men suffer as a result of female-oriented packaging and merchandising. There is an untapped market for moisturizing creams and sunblock among men who work outdoors — police, construction workers, cable TV and telephone line installers, road crews. Given all we know about skin cancer, these guys truly need access to these products. But they're not going to traipse through the blushers and concealers to find them. And they're not going to buy a product that presents itself as intended for women and children. If you went through your typical health and beauty section, you'd think that men don't have skin. But they do, and it needs help.
Clinique makes a complete line of shaving and skin products for men. But at the very sophisticated Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City, a man has to visit the all-female cosmetics bazaar on the ground floor to find the stuff. It's not even available at the men's store across Fifth Avenue. Who would guess that the shaving cream is right next to the lipstick? I've no doubt that many women buy shaving products for their men, but that's the old-fashioned approach, not the way of the future. Gillette makes shaving creams for a variety of skin types, and there's no doubt that it's for men. But how is a man supposed to know which type of skin he has? A simple wall chart display would do the trick, but I've yet to see one. I recently visited a national chain's drugstore in Manhattan's Chelsea section, the epicenter of gay life here. Even this store shortchanges men — their section (which consisted only of deodorant, a few hair-grooming products, some Old Spice, a tube of Brylcreem) was jammed into a corner shelf between the film-processing booth and the disposable razors. This store would be a perfect place to create a prototype men's section. Instead, it was the same old dreariness.
Giving men their own products, and a place to buy them, would be a good start. But that still smacks of the health, beauty and cosmetics section designed for women. Someone needs to start from scratch in designing a "men's health" department, where you'd find skin products, grooming aids, shaving equipment, shampoo and conditioner, fragrance, condoms, muscle-pain treatments, over-the-counter drugs and the vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies for ailments that afflict men as well as women. There might also be some athletic wear, like socks, T-shirts, supporters, elastic bandages and so on. There should also be a display of books and magazines on health, fitness and appearance. The section itself would have a masculine feeling, from the fixtures to the package designs. And it would be merchandised with men in mind-the signs would be big and prominent, and everything would be easy to find. The number-one magazine success story of the past decade has been the amazing growth of a periodical called Men's Health, which sells over 1.5 million copies a month, more than GQ, Esquire, Men's Journal and all the others. if the magazine can thrive, why not the store section, too?
What Women Want
Copyright © 1999 by Obat, Inc.
Chapter Nine: What Women Want
Before this chapter begins, may I take a moment to mark the passing of a great American institution and one of the last true bastions (if not actual hideouts) of postwar masculinity?
I'm speaking, of course, of Joe's Hardware. Or was it Jim's? Doesn't matter — you know the place. Creaky planks on the floor. Weird smell of rubber and 3-in-one oil in the air. Big wooden bin of tenpenny nails. Twine. Elbow joints. Mystic tape. Spools of copper wire. Drums of waterproof sealant. Brads. Brads? Hell, brads, tacks, staples, washers, nuts, bolts (Molly and otherwise), pins, sleeves, brackets, housings, flanges, hinges, gaskets, shims, wood screws, sheet metal screws, a calendar featuring Miss Snap-On Tools in a belly shirt, brandishing killer cleavage and a power router, and over there — atop the rickety ladder, chewing a bad cheroot, rummaging blindly in an ancient box of two-prong plugs, cursing genially under his stogie breath — Joe himself. I mean Jim.
Whatever happened to him? Dead. How about his store? Dead.
Who killed them? Who do you think?
Oh, those...women! Too fancy to shop at Joe's, am I right? Poor guy stocked everything you could want, but it just wasn't enough. Not the right color. Not enough styles. The place stinks like cigars.
It's no surprise that women are capable of causing such tectonic shifts in the world of shopping. Shopping is still and always will be meant mostly for females. Shopping is female. When men shop, they are engaging in what is inherently a female activity. And so women are capable of consigning entire species of retailer or product to Darwin's dustbin if that retailer or product is unable to adapt to what women need and want. It's like watching dinosaurs die out.
Need more evidence? Two words: sewing machine.
in the '50s, I am told, more than 75 percent of American households owned sewing machines. Today it's under 5 percent. So roll over, Joe — here comes Mr. Singer. (In fact, the sewing machine giant has gone into the military weaponry business.) Women once made entire wardrobes for themselves and their families, and kept repairing garments until they had truly earned their rest. Then the past three decades of socioeconomic upheaval happened and women stopped sewing anything more ambitious than a loose button.
One last illustration?
Paper grocery store coupons?
Gone. Whoosh! Today less than 3 percent of all manufacturers' coupons are ever redeemed. Women's lives changed, and the thought of sitting hunched over the kitchen table scissoring away at the Daily Bugle suddenly seemed as cost-effective as churning your own butter. Oh, there are some major pockets of couponclipping resistance — senior citizens, the highly budget-conscious and motivated, mostly women who aren't working at jobs all day. But otherwise — outtahere!
Of course, we're all familiar with how men have become better, more caring, more sensitive shoppers, willing to shoulder some of the burden even of mundane household purchasing and provisioning. But let's not forget that this reformation came about in large part because of gentle prompting (if not actual violent pushing and shoving) by women. And let's keep in mind also that while the future of retailing will undoubtedly show the effects of more male energy in the market place, for the most part the big shifts will continue to reflect changes in the lives and tastes of women.
But what, as marketing genius Sigmund Freud was moved to ask, do women want from shopping? We speak a great deal of the distinct differences in how men and women behave in stores, but rather than dish out generalizations, let me start with a good example. It's from a study we recently did for an Italian supermarket chain, and it comes directly from a video camera we trained on the meat counter.
There, we watched a middle-aged woman approach and begin picking up and examining packages of ground meat. She did so methodically, carefully, one by one. As she shopped a man strode up and, with his hands behind his back, stood gazing over the selection. After a brief moment he chose a package, dropped it into his cart and sped away. The woman continued going through meat. Then came a couple with a baby. The wife hung back by the stroller while her husband picked up a package, gave it a quick once-over and brought it back to their cart. His wife inspected it and shook her head. He returned it, chose another and brought it back to their cart. His wife inspected it and shook her head. He chose again. She shook again. Exasperated, she left him by the stroller and got the meat herself As they walked off, the first woman was making her way through the final package of meat on display. Satisfied with her research, she took the first one she had examined, placed it in her cart and moved on.
What makes women such heroic shoppers? The nature-over-nurture types posit that the prehistoric role of women as homebound gatherers of roots, nuts and berries rather than roaming hunters of woolly mammoths proves a biological inclination toward skillful shopping. The nurture-over-nature fans argue that for centuries, the all-powerful patriarchy kept women in the house and out of the world of commerce, except as consumers at the retail level.
This much is certain: Shopping was what got the housewife out of the house. Under the old division of labor, the job of acquiring fell mainly to women, who did it willingly, ably, systematically. It was (and, in many parts of the world, remains) women's main realm of public life. If, as individuals, they had little influence in the world of business, in the marketplace they collectively called the shots. Shopping gave women a good excuse to sally forth, sometimes even in blissful solitude, beyond the clutches of family. It was the first form of women's liberation, affording an activity that lent itself to socializing with other adults, clerks and store owners and fellow shoppers.
As women's lives change, though, their relationship to shopping must evolve. Today most American women hold jobs, so they get all the impersonal, businesslike contact with other adults they want (and then some). They also get plenty of time away from the comforts of home. And so the routine shopping trip is no longer the great escape. It's now something that must be crammed into the tight spaces between job and commute and home life and sleep. It's something to be rushed through over a lunch hour, on the way home or at night. The convenience store industry is a direct beneficiary of how women's lives have changed — instead of a highly organized weekly trip to the supermarket, with detailed list in hand, women now discover at 9 P.M. that they're out of milk, or bread for tomorrow's lunches, prompting a moonlit run to the 7-Eleven. Catalogs, TV shopping channels and Web shopping all have flourished thanks mainly to the changes in women's responsibilities. And the less time women spend in stores, the less they buy there, plain and simple. As they hand over some of their traditional duties (cooking, cleaning, laundry, child care) to men, they also relinquish control over the shopping for food, soap and kiddie clothes. Women may even become more male in their shopping habits — hurried hit-and-run artists instead of dedicated browsers and searchers. Right off the bat, the advantages of the post-feminist world to retailers (women have more money) are offset by some disadvantages (women have less time and inclination to spend it in stores).
The use of shopping as a social activity seems unchanged, however. Women still like to shop with friends, egging each other on and rescuing each other from ill-advised purchases. I don't think we'll ever see two men set off on a day of hunting for the perfect bathing suit. As we've seen, studies show that when two women shop together, they often spend more time and money than women alone. They certainly can outshop and outspend women saddled with male companions. Two women in a store can be a shopping machine, and wise retailers do whatever they can to encourage this behavior — promotions such as "bring-a-ftiend-get-a-discount," or seating areas just outside dressing rooms, to allow for more relaxed try-ons and assessments. Stores with cafes on the premises allow women to shop, then take a break, without ever leaving sight of the selling floor. ABC Carpet, in New York, takes it a step farther -everything in the cafe, from the furniture and light fixtures to the salt and pepper shakers, is for sale.
When you've observed as many shoppers as I have, you realize that for many women there are psychological and emotional aspects to shopping that are just plain absent in most men. Women can go into a kind of reverie when they shop — they become absorbed in the ritual of seeking and comparing, of imagining and envisioning merchandise in use. They then coolly tally up the pros and cons of this purchase over that, and once they've found what they want at the proper price, they buy it. Women generally care that they do well in even the smallest act of purchasing, and take pride in their ability to select the perfect thing, whether it's a cantaloupe or a house or a husband. In fact, watch men and women in the produce section — the man breezes through, picks up the head of lettuce on top of the pile and wheels away, failing to notice the brown spots and limpid leaves, while the woman palpates, examines and sniffs her way past the garbage, looking for lettuce perfection. He'll even fail to notice how much the lettuce costs, something almost unthinkable among women. Men do take pride in their proficiency with certain durable goods — cars, tools, boats, barbecue grills, computers. Women, though, have traditionally understood the importance of the impermanent world — cooking a meal, decorating a cake, fixing hair and makeup.
Not that there's anything superficial about the female relationship with consumption. In fact, it's women, not men, who plumb the metaphysics of shopping — they illuminate how we human beings go through life searching, examining, questioning, and then acquiring and assuming and absorbing the best of what we see. At that exalted level, shopping is a transforming experience, a method of becoming a newer, perhaps even slightly improved person. The products you buy turn you into that other, idealized version of yourself. That dress makes you beautiful, this lipstick makes you kissable, that lamp turns your house into an elegant showplace.
In practical terms, this all means one potently obvious, overarching thing: Women demand more of shopping environments than men do. Males just want places that allow them to find what they need with a minimum of looking and then get out fast. If a male is made to wander and seek — in other words, to shop — he's likely to give up in frustration and exit. Men take less pleasure in the journey. Women are generally more patient and inquisitive, completely at ease in a space that gradually reveals itself. Therefore, they need environments where they can spend time and move about comfortably at their own speed in what sometimes resembles a semi-trance state. Consider the implications of what we call the butt-brush factor, the discomfort women feel when they are jostled from the rear while shopping. It indicates that women have an aversion to examining merchandise that's displayed below waist level, which takes in quite a bit of American retailing's selling space. You can't ask a woman to bend over and expect that she's going to feel comfortable for more than a moment or two. (This isn't limited to women, either-nobody likes to bend in a store. In fact, older women are probably more limber than their male counterparts.) You can't crowd a woman and think that she's going to linger. Watch shoppers' faces in busy aisles-as you'll recall, once they've been bumped a few times, they begin to look annoyed. And irritated shoppers do not tarry; in fact, they frequently leave before buying what they came for. Retailers must keep all this in mind when deciding where to sell what.
For instance, department store cosmetics sections require women to sit or stand in one spot while makeup is demonstrated, which can be a problem during busy times. Our research shows that women standing at the corner of a counter, where they can wrap themselves around the angle and nestle in a little bit, are more likely to buy something than women standing just a few feet away, along the main stretch of the counter. Some cosmetics departments use counters to create cul-desacs, recessed areas that allow shoppers to stand clear of passing foot traffic and browse without fear. We call them catchment basins, and they are successful at inducing women to shop a little longer. As discussed in Chapter 1, drugstores sometimes stock unglamorous cosmetics such as concealer cream at the very bottom of a wall display — meaning that older women, the shoppers least appreciative of having to stoop, are forced to bend low and stick their butts out where they'd rather not go. As a result of such disrespect, less concealer will be sold than if it was positioned higher.
Women's spatial requirements can be seen everywhere in retailing. Airport gift shops, for instance, are typically divided into the "grab and go" zone — near the register, where you dart in for a paper or gum, pay and run — and the "dwell" zone, farther into the store, where gift items are usually displayed. Our research shows that women in these stores gravitate away from the hubbub around the counter and toward the dwell zone, where they feel protected from foot traffic. Many of these stores' architecture features little nooks and crannies created by shelving and racks — perfect cul-de-sacs for uninterrupted shopping. That's how women prefer to shop: within view of the main flow of traffic, but sheltered in sectioned-off areas.
The butt sensitivity of women also establishes a relationship between store design and typeface: The narrower the quarters, the less time a woman will spend there, so the clearer and more direct signs and other merchandising materials must be. All print must be big and highcontrast; designers of shampoo bottles, for instance, or any products sold in the dose quarters of a modern drugstore, have to heed this reality. We've studied many drugstore health and beauty departments and the result is always the same — women like to study products before they buy, especially if the product is new on the market. in one study, we saw that 91 percent of all drugstore buyers read the front of a package, 42 percent read the back and 8 percent read the sides. Sixty-three percent of women who bought something read at least one product package. So there's a clear connection between reading and buying. And reading takes time. And time requires space. Here's the breakdown from our compiled data base; times are for how long women who made purchases read the packaging first:
facial cleaners: 13 seconds
moisturizers: 16 seconds
hand and body soap: 11 seconds
shower gel: 5 seconds
sun care: 11 seconds
acne medications: 13 seconds
But if women don't feel comfortable, they won't pause for two seconds, and they certainly won't buy any of the products that require a little study. Retailers should walk every foot of selling space asking this question: Can I stand here and shop without being jostled from behind? Anyplace where the answer is "no" is no place for merchandise requiring a careful look.
Even in fast-food restaurants, males and females have different spatial requirements. Without much consideration, men choose tables up front, where they have a good view of the busiest part of the room. Women will often take a moment or two to shop for where they'll down their Big Macs, and then they gravitate toward the rear, to tables that afford a little privacy in fact, women aren't all that crazy about going into fast-food restaurants alone. They make up a large percentage of fast-food diners who go through the drive-thru and eat in their cars in the restaurant parking lot.
You can really see the female shopping approach in stores where women dominate — for instance, at the greeting card shop. There, women aren't merely fulfilling obligations, they're searching for authentic emotional expression. Women will devote quite a bit of time to studying card after card to find the one that speaks their hearts. Card stores should therefore feel like places where the emotional life reigns. A few years ago Hallmark hired a designer with a lot of experience designing department stores to redo its retail spaces. She created a very stylish look, using lots of marble and other expensive materials, but the overall feeling was cooler and more elegant than Hallmark customers had been used to. They must have missed their familiar warm and fuzzy environments; in response to the redesign, shopping time dropped.
Card stores must be designed to allow quiet, unhurried contemplation, meaning that aisles should be wide enough to allow room for readers and for those just passing by. Aisles must also be wide enough for baby strollers. Adjacencies should be planned rather than accidental: You don't want to be trying to find the perfect message of condolence and have your concentration broken by the women next to you laughing at the dirty fortieth-birthday cards. Other important display issues also come to the fore in card stores. Women buy cards only after picking up, opening and reading a great many of them. But the merchandise is fragile — easily folded, torn or soiled. It amazes me that there is still no widely used display system that would allow shoppers to read sample cards but not touch the merchandise. Also, in card stores the displays usually start at about a foot or so off the floor and rise to about six feet high. There are two problems with that: One, the low cards are too far down to be seen without stooping; and two, the low cards are too easily touched by grubby-fingered small children accompanying their mothers. if the whole display were raised by a foot, the problems would be solved. Even if the highest cards were six and a half feet off the floor, they would be within reach of anyone taller than five feet.
The other great arena where female shopping behaviors are on display is in cosmetics. Whether it's in a department store's impossibly glamorous cosmetics bazaar or a chain drugstore's wall display of lipsticks and eyeshadow, this is where a woman in jeans and a sweater can be transformed into a princess just by testing a few items and gazing into a mirror. This is as public as a private art form ever gets. There's a good reason cosmetics are usually stocked along a wall or in their own sheltered area — this is where women let their hair down, literally and figuratively. They need a little privacy if they're going to cut loose.
Typically, women start as adolescents buying the cheaper brands down at the drugstore. Then they'll trade up to the fancy, high-priced stuff sold in department stores by the glam representatives of the various manufacturers — the dolls in the official white lab coats (but Saturday-night-out makeup) brandishing brushes loaded with rouge and base and the rest. This is the high-pressure school of cosmetics selling. You sit on the stool, she turns you into a slightly toned-down version of herself, and you buy what she urges on you (in theory, at least). The prices are intentionally obscure, figuring that you'll be too intimidated to ask.
That's still the standard setup, but it's quickly changing now thanks to the "open sell" concept finally having come to the cosmetics counter. It's a form of women's liberation — the makeup is being freed from the clutches of the demonstrator — saleswoman and is out on its own for shoppers to test, ponder, try and then buy - or not. Some of the old game of let's pretend is gone, but so are some of the old high-pressure tactics. This open sell also allows women to check the price of makeup without having to endure the humiliation of asking that imperious clerk. By lessening the sticker shock, stores should end up selling more cosmetics.
These are the immutables of how women shop, the fundamentals that still (and may always) apply. Which is well and good and necessary if anyone is going to sell anything. But it's not where the action is today.
We've seen what gender revolt means where male shoppers are concerned: All the contemporary effort lies in taking stores and products Intended mainly for women and making them safe for guys. For women, it's just the opposite — the challenge is in making traditionally male" products and environments appealing to female shoppers.
For example, the old-fashioned emporium of nuts and bolts still lingers here and there, but for the most part, one category killer has done away with it. How did Home Depot manage that? Mainly by reflecting the socioeconomic reality that women no longer depend on men in the old-fashioned way. What does that have to do with wing nuts and duct tape? Well, were the females who spent all day at the barricades of social and political enlightenment going to come home at night and beg hubby (for the fifteenth time) to paint the window trim or install the dimmers? Unlikely. Not to mention the rise over the past three decades of the single female homeowner-women with the money and the desire to feather their own nests. Can we have female cops and firepersons and CEOs and cyberentrepreneurs and vice presi dcntial candidates and not have confident, ambitious, fully empowered handywomen, too? I don't think so.
And where would these women go to begin their careers as tool guys? To Joe's Hardware? No — the typical hardware store was exclusively, unapologetically masculine, and maybe even a little unfriendly to female ways. It was a tree house with a cash register. So something had to give. Enter the do-it-yourself chains. (And, from the other end of the retailing spectrum, the hardware boutiques.) They stripped hardware of its arcane side, rendering it unintimidating, even friendly, to the greenest tyro. Doing that required a major shift in mission as wen as merchandising: Stores that sold nuts and bolts gave way to stores that sold lifestyles. Under that vast umbrella, nuts and bolts and lumber and Sheetrock could be sold alongside lighting fixtures and kitchen cabinets and Jacuzzis and frilly (and nonfrilly) curtains and everything else. These stores sold not hardware but homes. The retail hardware industry has gone from an "Erector set" mentality to a "let's play house" approach, from boys only to boys and girls playing together.
This has also been done by hiring salesclerks who were knowledgeable and able to instruct and inspire confidence. The new wave of home stores hires women for sales and managerial jobs traditionally held only by guys named Joe (or Jim). There's at least one Home Depot TV spot in which only females appear. The stores also make enthusiastic use of any opportunity for education, whether with how-to videos or free instore handyman lessons. These stores realize that the woman who is taught to hang a picture today will spackle tomorrow and install crown molding next month. Who do you think is watching Bob Vila and Norm Abrams and all the other fix-it shows on TV? The manly men are watching the bass-fishing channel, while the women are watching the handymen, who resemble nothing more than Julia Child in a tool belt.
This infusion of female energy changes even how the stores display their goods. No longer can lighting fixtures simply be hung on a rack or stood on a shelf Retailers have to show exactly how the lights will look in a room. Instead of displaying a box of bathroom faucets, stores now show the whole rub, complete with shower curtain and towels. Here's the indisputable proof of how Home Depot vanquished the old fashioned nuts-andbolts emporium: Before, you went to a hardware store only when you needed something. Now, you go just to browse, to see what's new and what's on display. You can now shop hardware — which means, by definition, that women have won and Joe (and Jim) have lost.
It's no accident that the most successful recent paint launches sell under the names of lifestyle gurus Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren. in fact, it Kmart Martha's paint is often displayed way up front instead of where paint used to be (in the rear, behind the bags of peat moss). Paint has gone from being hardware to fashion, all because women got involved. Men don't paint until the walls are peeling and cracking; women will do it when they, not the walls, need a change. Of course, painting has always been within the abilities of your average man or woman. But only now has paint itself — the way it is packaged, marketed and sold — gone unisex.
There's another beneficiary of how hardware has changed — all we baby-boomer men who somehow made it to adulthood without ever learning how to be handy around the house. As women became more handy, men became less so; we, too, had begun to feel a little intimidated by the old-fashioned hardware store. But even this has come at some cost to men. In the days since feminism's rise, we've seen the decline not only of hardware stores but also of the guys-only barbershop, the shoeshine stand and the men's clothing and shoe store. First the barriers to female admission to universities, the military, private clubs and all the rest fell. Then unisex hair salons, and stores like The Gap, Banana Republic and J. Crew came along to desegregate clothing stores and even styles. The overall thrust of the second half of the century has been to flush men out of our dens, and for better or worse, or maybe both, it's worked. (Is the pendulum ready to swing back? Have you been to a cigar bar lately?)
A second great arena for gender upheaval is the computer store and other places where consumer electronics are sold. Stereotypically, we think of males as being the ones at the personal technology frontier — building stereo components from kits, or shelling out five-figure sums for speakers. More recently, personal computers and cell phones all began life as toys for boys. But the fact is that often, women are the earliest adopters of new technology When business began using computers, the female office workers had to learn first about operating systems and software. The women, crunched for time on their lunch breaks, were the earliest enthusiasts of the automated teller machine.
How did we not notice? Because men and women use technology in very different ways. Men are in love with the technology itself, with the gee-whiz factor, with the horsepower and the bang for the buck. Back before cars had computerized innards, the commonest sight in America was three or four guys assembled around the raised hood of a car, watching its owner adjust a carburetor or install a generator, and offering copious advice on how it could be done better. Today those men are gathered around the barbecue comparing the size of their hard drives and the speed of their modems. As they say, it's a dude thing.
Women generally take a completely different approach to the world of high tech. They take technologies and turn them into appliances. They strip even the fanciest gizmo of all that is mysterious and jargony in order to determine its usefulness. Women look at technology and see its purpose, its reason — what it can do. The promise of technology is always that it will make our lives easier and more efficient. Women are the ones who demand that it fulfill its promise.
Therefore, while wireless phones started out as rather big and clunky toys fit only for the briefcase, they have become small, sleek and far more commonplace in handbags. Even the difference in how they are sold to men and to women is telling: The TV spot starring a male shows him on the golf course, calling business associates but otherwise whooping it up with the guys — the eternal child with his toy. In the female commercial, the small daughters of an executive mom make her feel guilty, so she takes them to the beach, where she uses her cell phone to keep up with her job — the responsible adult with her implement. There's also a difference in how men and women gather information about technology, as we reviewed in the previous chapter. In a study we performed in a wireless-phone store, male shoppers would walk in, read the wall displays, pick up the literature and then leave without ever talking to a clerk. Females would check out the phones, too, but they were much more likely to bring their questions to the sales desk to have them answered by a human being instead of a brochure. While both men and women required multiple store visits before purchasing, women usually required one more store visit than men before they bought, which may also reflect the fact that male customers had begun using cell phones earlier than women. By now, women have caught up.
As noted in Chapter 8, technology almost sells itself to men, but smart retailers do all they can to figure out how to sell it to women. RadioShack's customer base is overwhelmingly male. So when the chain decided it wanted to become America's favorite phone store, it wisely displayed telephones up front, the first thing inside the door. As a result, women window shoppers saw the phones, and the percentage of female shoppers rose dramatically. They bought phones, but they stayed to make other purchases, too-batteries, audio equipment, computer peripherals, toys and other items they normally found elsewhere.
That gets at the problem with all consumer electronics today — it's overwhelmingly aimed at male shoppers. From product design, packaging and marketing to the stores and their employees, computer hardware and software are made for men. Computers are now where hardware was years ago — a boys' club. It can't last much longer. Many of the emerging class of cyberentrepreneurs are female. More than 40 percent of all Web users are women. Soon, some computer maker is going to wake up and do what it takes to make female shoppers feel at ease.
What will that look like? Well, someday there win be a computer hardware company with a highly visible woman at (or very near) the helm, somebody to hold forth on the business page of the Times and on CNBC — kind of like a female Bill Gates (but with a better haircut). Its products will emphasize not the size of the RAM or the speed of the microprocessor but rather ease of use, versatility and convenience. it will focus on results, not process. its computers win be sold like refrigerators instead of like scientific instruments. The most heavily promoted feature will be a toll-free number for plainspoken technical help when a program freezes or a printer malfunctions. Then, some agency will begin using images of women in its TV and print ads, maybe even in a campaign that lampoons how men relate to technology. A retail chain will make a point of hiring female staff, and human beings, not spec sheets, will be responsible for educating customers and answering their questions. Finally, designers will provide ergonomically improved keyboards. Computers will be easy to clean (they're almost impossible now). They'll even come in colors other than putty or black!
Need evidence that men and women see technology differently? At a computer software store we studied, the shoppers were overwhelmingly male, but the conversion rate, the percentage of shoppers who bought something, was highest among women. That's because they were in the store with some practical mission to carry out, not just to daydream over a new Zip drive or a scanner. Most women would rather just learn what they need to know to use the damn thing. Everywhere in the world of hardware and software, the sexes swap places: Men love to browse and wander while women are purposeful, impossible to distract while they look for what they need.
Similarly men and women switch sides when shopping the Web: Men spend lots of time surfing from site to site while women go directly to their destination, click only enough to buy what they want and then log off. It's pretty much the same way men and women behave with the TV remote control — he restlessly jumps from channel to channel, which leads her to fantasize about strangling him so she can watch just one program all the way through.
The car industry, perhaps the most backward and anti-shopper business in America, has realized for a few years now that women buy cars. Saturn in particular acknowledges the presence of females in cars, by taking most of the sleazy wheeler-dealer out of the transaction. The TV spots almost always include women on both sides of the transaction. They make the cars seem as honest and wholesome as an oatmeal cookie. In our dealership interviews, we hear lots of female customers wish there were more females selling and servicing the cars. It's a matter of trusting that the salesperson isn't going to condescend or gouge just because he's a man and you're not.
Considering what a male-dominated world car sales has always been, dealers should be hiring lots of women to sell and service automobiles. Hiring women to sell cars isn't just political correctness, either — most women surveyed say they'd feel more comfortable buying cars from other females. They're not male-haters so much as they are feeling a little condescended to and maybe even ripped off by male car salesmen.
Car salesmen live by the conventional wisdom that the male half of a couple-makes the decision, not realizing that in many cases she's the one who's pushing for the new wheels, or that her objections are what must be overcome. So the pitch is directed at the male while the woman silently burns. After the sale is closed the buyers will usually be brought back to the service department to meet the manager. Back there it's usually 100 percent guy-land, starting even with the choice of magazines in the waiting area (Car and Driver and Sports Illustrated but not Vanity Fair and People). Someday soon we may see Ms. Goodwrench or the Pep Girls — Mary, Jo and Jill — but they're not here yet. Women report a distinct distaste for all their dealings with auto dealers, mechanics and auto parts stores. They feel patronized, scorned and ripped off, but they also realize there's not much of a choice so far. They deserve better.
Again, the smart first move would be to hire females to fix cars and sell parts. Using actresses in TV spots also goes a long way toward repositioning this all-male world. A few years ago we did a study for a mass merchandiser's auto parts department. Ninety percent of the shoppers were male, but 25 percent of those who used the computerized information fixtures were female. Clearly, those women had questions and weren't getting answers from the salesclerks. Maybe the clerks didn't know the answers, or maybe the women just didn't enjoy asking those guys. Either way, it shows that women are eager to learn how to handle the basic maintenance and easy repairs of their cars.
If I bought a gas station tomorrow, the first thing I'd do is put up a huge sign saying "Cleanest Bathrooms of Any Gas Station Anywhere." Gas stations persist in displaying most prominently the price per gallon, down to the tenth of a cent, as though we even think that small. Gas is gas, and prices are fairly uniform, too. But clean bathrooms would draw female drivers, who make more use of facilities and so have more bitter complaints about horrible, filthy conditions. The fact is that while gas has become a self-serve item, we need assistance on the road now more than ever. We're going greater distances and so need directions, and decent places to eat and drink, and dean bathrooms. Maybe even someplace with a clean baby-changing table and a working sink and a trash can that isn't spilling all over the floor. No woman is going to sweat a few pennies in gas price if she is cared for otherwise. Don't men gas station owners realize that? Mostly they don't — why would they? But if there were more women involved in the car business, from dealerships to parts and repair to gasoline, the whole industry would look different. it would look like — hardware! Which may mean that even the car business isn't quite hopeless.
Copyright © 1999 by Obat, Inc.
Chapter One: A Science Is Born
Comfortable shoes, the American commercial camouflage uniform — khaki pants, olive polo shirt, no aftershave and good, thick, dun-colored socks.
Okay, stroll, stroll, stroll...stop.
Get out the clipboard and pen.
Shhh. Stay behind that potted palm. This is the first track of the day.
The subject of study is the fortyish woman in the tan trench coat and blue skirt. She's in the bath section. She's touching towels. Mark this down — she's petted one, two, three, four of them so far. She just checked the price tag on one. Mark that down, too. Careful, her head's coming up — blend into the aisle. She's picking up two towels from the tabletop display and is leaving the section with them. Get the time. Now, tail her into the aisle and on to her next stop.
It's another day of fieldwork; the laboratory, another troubled department store. The focus of our analysis is the domestic department as per the science of shopping. But let's start by addressing a fundamental question: Since when does such a scholarly discipline even exist?
Well, if, say, anthropology had devoted a branch to the study of modern shoppers in situ, a fancy Latin way of saying shoppers out shopping, interacting with retail environments (not only stores, but also banks and restaurants), including but not limited to every rack, shelf, counter and table display of merchandise, every sign, banner, brochure, directional aid and computerized interactive informational fixture, the entrances and exits, the windows and walls, the elevators and escalators and stairs and ramps, the cashier lines and teller lines and counter lines and restroom lines, and every inch of every aisle — in short, every nook and cranny from the farthest reach of the parking lot to the deepest penetration of the store itself — that would be the start of the science of shopping. And if anthropology had already been studying all that...and not simply studying the store, but what, exactly human beings do in it, where they go and don't go, and by what path they go there; what they see and fail to see, or read and decline to read; and how they deal with the objects they come upon, how they shop, you might say — the precise anatomical mechanics and behavioral psychology of how they pull a sweater from a rack to examine it, or read a box of heartburn pills or a fast-food restaurant menu, or deploy a shopping basket, or react to the sight of a line at the ATMs...again, as I say, if anthropology had been paying attention, and not just paying attention but then collating, digesting, tabulating and cross-referencing every little bit of data, from the extremely broad (How many people enter this store on a typical Saturday morning broken down by age, sex and size of shopper group?) to the extremely narrow (Do more male supermarket shoppers under thirty-five who read the nutritional information on the side panel of a cereal box actually buy the cereal compared to those who just look at the picture on the front?), well, then we wouldn't have had to try to invent the science of shopping.
But anthropology didn't pay attention to those details, and so down the hall from my office is a room containing around fifty cameras, mostly video but with some still and digital cameras and a couple of old-fashioned Super 8 time-lapse film cameras thrown in. Next to them are piled cases of blank 8mm videotapes, two hours per tape, five hundred tapes to a case. We go through about fourteen cases, seven thousand tapes, a year. (In 1992, when we shot a lot of time-lapse Super 8 film — about $60,000 worth — Kodak told us we were the single largest consumer of Super 8 film in the world.) We also have maybe a dozen handheld computers on which we take down the answers from the thousands of shopper interviews we conduct, and there are some odd laptops in there, too, plus all manner of tripods, mounts, lenses and other camera accessories, including lots of duct tape. Oh, and hardshell cases for everything, because it all travels. A lot. We have enough gear in that room to equip a major university's school of social anthropology or experimental psychology, assuming the university has a deserved reputation for generating tons of original research gathered all over the globe.
Despite all that high-tech equipment, though, our most important research tool is a low-tech piece of paper we call the track sheet, in the hands of the individuals we call trackers. Trackers are the field researchers of the science of shopping, the scholars of shopping, or, more precisely, of shoppers. Essentially, trackers stealthily make their way through stores following shoppers and noting everything they do. Usually, a tracker begins by loitering inconspicuously near a store's entrance, waiting for a shopper to enter, at which point the "track" starts. The tracker will stick with the unsuspecting individual (or individuals) as long as the shopper is in the store (excluding trips to the dressing room or the restroom) and will record on the track sheet virtually everything he or she does. Sometimes, when the store is large, trackers work in teams in order to be less intrusive.
Befitting a science that has grown up in the real world, meaning far from the ivory towers of academia, our trackers are not an taken from the usual researcher mold. In the beginning we hired graduate environmental psychology students, but we found they were sometimes unsuited to the work and tended to come to the job burdened with textbook theories they wanted to apply. As a result, they often didn't possess the patience necessary to simply watch what shoppers do. The other problem we had with grad students involved stamina: While we don't work in the dusty heat of Mesopotamia, twelve hours on your feet under the fluorescent lights at Kmart is no picnic either. Fieldwork in any physical or social science is difficult. We found that, for our purposes, smart, creative people — artists, actors, writers, a puppeteer — often have what it takes. Beyond the fact that they have no theories to uphold or demolish, their professional skills are often rooted in their ability to observe. Also, it does not hurt that they have flexible schedules, so that when that Brazilian brewer or Australian tampon manufacturer or American fast-food operator happens to call, they have the open calendar and curiosity to be willing to go take a look.
When we find someone we think has the temperament and the intelligence for this work, we first put him or her through a training session. There's a lot to learn — how do I watch and simultaneously take notes, for instance, or how can I tell whether someone is reading a sign or just staring at the mirror next to it? We have to teach the most important tracker skill of all: How do I stand close enough to study someone without being noticed? It's crucial to our work that shoppers don't realize they're being observed. There's no other way to be sure that we're seeing natural behavior. Fact is, we're all still surprised by how close you can stand to someone in a store and still remain invisible. We find that positioning yourself behind the shopper is a bad idea — we all know the sensation that we're being watched. But if you stand to the side of a shopper, his or her peripheral vision "reads" you as just another customer — harmless, in other words, and barely worth noticing. From that position you can get close enough to see exactly what a shopper is doing. You can be sure that he's touched, say, nine golf gloves, not eight or ten. Then we throw the tracker hopefuls out into the real world, in a store setting, to see them in action. Most of them wash out at this point — you can teach technique, but not the intelligence or the slight case of fascination required to do this work well. Over half of our core group of thirty U.S. trackers have been with us for more than five years, some for a decade or more. It's hard work, but addictive, too. in teams of three to ten people, led by a member of our staff, they crisscross the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, South America and Australia, visiting every kind of retail business imaginable, from banks to fast-food restaurants to high-fashion boutiques to hangar-size discounters and everything in between. To make our international work easier and more efficient, for three years we have had research teams based out of Milan, Italy, and for two years out of Sydney, Australia.
In addition to measuring and counting every significant motion of a shopping trip, the trackers must also contribute incisive field notes describing the nuances of customer behavior, making intelligent inferences based on what they've observed. These notes add up to yet another, this time anecdotal, layer of information about a given environment and how people use it.
The forms our trackers use have evolved over the two decades we've been doing this research. They are the key to the entire enterprise, an achievement in the art of information storage and retrieval, nondigital division. Our earliest track sheets could record maybe ten different variables of shopper behavior. Today we're up to around forty. The form is reinvented for every research project we undertake, but typically it starts with a detailed map depicting the premises we're about to study, whether it's a store, a bank branch, a parking lot (for a drive-thru project) or just a single section or even just one aisle of a store. The map shows every doorway and aisle, every display, every shelf and rack and table and counter. Also on the form is space for information about the shopper (sex, race, estimates of age, description of attire) and what he or she does in the store. Using the system of shorthand notation, a combination of symbols, letters and hash marks, a tracker can record, for instance, that a bald, bearded man in a red sweater and blue jeans entered a department store on a Saturday at 11:07 a.m., walked directly to a first-floor display of wallets, picked up or otherwise touched a total of twelve of them, checked the price tag on four, then chose one, moved at 11:16 to a nearby tie rack, stroked seven ties, read the contents tags on all seven, read the price on two, then bought none and went directly to the cashier to pay. Oh, wait, he paused for a moment at a mannequin and examined the price tag on the jacket it wore. We'd mark that down, too, just as we'd note that he entered the cashier line at 11:23 as the third person in line, waited two minutes and fifty-one seconds to get to the register, paid with a credit card and exited the store at 11:30. Depending on the size of the store and the length of the typical shopper's stay, a tracker can study up to fifty shoppers a day. Usually we'll have several trackers at a site, and a single project may involve the simultaneous study of three or four locations in separate cities over a series of different weekends.
By the end of a job, an incredible amount of information has been crammed onto those sheets. They come back to the office where the job captain spends a day "cleaning" the forms — making sure that each hash mark is visible and that every box that should be filled out has been. Then our data department spends another day or so entering all the information, every single notation on every track sheet, into a data base.
Over the years we've spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless frustrating hours with computer programmers, trying to come up with a data base system that could handle the kind of work we do. The big problem is that while we crunch the same numbers in the same ways from job to job, each project usually requires us to do something a little differently — to collect different kinds of data, or to devise new comparisons of facts we've uncovered. We've hired fancy consultants who've spent six months at a crack with us, trying to build us a computer system. They ask us to list everything we want our program to do, but every week we add six new things to the list that negate all their work from the previous month. And, of course, our turnaround time must be swift, so there's no time to change the system completely for each job — we may need to do one new comparison for a project today and then not have to perform that function again for seven months.
Until recently, most of our work was done in Microsoft Excel. Excel is not a data base program but a spreadsheet program, intended to help accountants do relatively simple flat calculations. Excel's beauty is its open architecture — you can get in there under the hood and tinker, and soup it up. And that's exactly what we've done. It's as though Microsoft built a very nice bicycle ten years ago and we've turned it into a databusting all-terrain vehicle. Today we run much of our work in FileMaker and SPSS, but still vet it in Excel.
When the videotapes come back from the sites, it's someone else's job to screen every foot. Depending on the size of the store, we may have ten cameras running eight hours a day trained on specific areas — a doorway, for example, or a particular shelf of products. We videotape around twenty thousand hours' worth of store time annually. The video produces even more hard data; if, for example, a study is meant to determine in part how a particular cash register design affects worker fatigue, we may use the video and a stopwatch to time how long it takes for a clerk to ring up a sale at 10 a.m. compared to 4 p.m.
The list of particulars we're capable of studying — what we call the deliverables — grows with every new project we take on. At last count, we've measured dose to nine hundred different aspects of shopper-store interaction. As a result of all that, we know quite a few facts about how human beings behave in stores. We can tell you how many males who take jeans into the fitting room will buy them compared to how many females will (65 percent to 25 percent). We can tell you how many people in a corporate cafeteria read the nutritional information on a bag of corn chips before buying (18 percent) compared to those lunching at a local sandwich shop (2 percent). Or how many browsers buy computers on a Saturday before noon (4 percent) as opposed to after 5 p.m. (21 percent). Or how many shoppers in a mall housewares store use shopping baskets (8 percent), and how many of those who take baskets actually buy something (75 percent) compared to those who buy without using baskets (34 percent). And then, of course, we draw on all we've learned in the past to suggest ways of increasing the number of shoppers who take baskets, for the science of shopping is, if it is anything, a highly practical discipline concerned with using research, comparison and analysis to make stores and products more amenable to shoppers.
Because this science has been invented as we have gone along, it's a living, breathing field of study. We never quite know what we'll find until we find it, and even then we sometimes have to stop to figure out what it is we've seen.
For example, we discovered a phenomenon known as the butt-brush effect almost accidentally. As part of an early study for Bloomingdale's in New York City, we trained a camera on one of the main ground-floor entrances, and the lens just happened to also take in a rack of neckties positioned near the entrance, on a main aisle. While reviewing the tape to study how shoppers negotiated the doorway during busy times, we began to notice something weird about the tie rack. Shoppers would approach it, stop and shop until they were bumped once or twice by people heading into or out of the store. After a few such jostles, most of the shoppers would move out of the way, abandoning their search for neckwear. We watched this over and over until it seemed clear that shoppers — women especially, though it was also true of men to a lesser extent — don't like being brushed or touched from behind. They'll even move away from merchandise they're interested in to avoid it. When we checked with our client, we learned that sales from that tie rack were lower than they expected from a fixture located on a main thoroughfare. The butt-brush factor, we surmised, was why that rack was an underperformer.
As I was delivering our findings to the store's president, he jumped up from the conference table, grabbed a phone, called down to the floor of the store and had someone move that tie rack immediately to a spot just off the main aisle. A few weeks later the head of store planning called me to say that sales from the rack had gone up quickly and substantially. Since that day we've found countless similar situations in which shoppers have been spooked by too-close quarters. In every case, a quick adjustment was all that was needed.
Another such "accident" of patient observation and analysis happened during a supermarket study we performed for a dog food manufacturer. When we staked out the pet aisle, we noticed that while adults bought the dog food, the dog treats — liver-flavored biscuits and such — were often being picked out by children or senior citizens. We realized that for the elderly, pets are like children, creatures to be spoiled. And while feeding Fido may not be any child's favorite chore, filling him up with doggie cookies can be loads of fun. Parents indulged their little ones' pleas for treats here just as they did over in the cookie aisle.
Because no one had ever noticed who exactly was buying (or lobbying for the purchase of) pet treats, they were typically stocked near the top of the supermarket shelves. As a result, our cameras caught children climbing the shelving to reach the treats. We witnessed one elderly woman using a box of aluminum foil to knock down her brand of dog biscuits. Move the treats to where kids and little old ladies can reach them, we advised the client. The client did so, and sales went up overnight.
Even the plainest truths can get lost in all the details of planning and stocking a store. A phrase I find myself using over and over with clients is this: The obvious isn't always apparent.
While studying the cosmetics section of a drugstore chain, we watched a woman in her sixties approach a wall rack, study it carefully and then kneel before it so she could find the one item she needed — concealer cream, which, because of its lack of glamour, was kept at the very bottom of the display. Similarly, in a department store we watched an overweight man try to find his size of underwear at a large aisle display — and saw him stoop dangerously low to reach it, down near the floor. In both cases, logic should have dictated that the displays be tailored to the shoppers who use them, not to the designers who made them. Move the concealer up, we advised, and put something aimed at teen shoppers down near the floor — the teens will find their products wherever they're stocked.
In some studies, we synthesize every bit of information we can possibly collect into a comprehensive portrait of a store or a single department. A major jeans manufacturer wanted to know how its product was sold in department stores, so in one weekend we descended on four sites, two in New England and two in Southern California. Each department was similar — the jeans section was a square area that held from eight to twelve tabletop displays and some wall shelving. We started by drawing a detailed map of each, showing the displays and the aisles leading into and out of the sections, but also where any signs or other promotional materials were posted. During that weekend we tracked a total of 815 shoppers and observed many more on camera, both video and time-lapse. We paid particular attention to the "doorways" — our term for any path leading into or out of an area of a store. Until the client knew which paths were most popular, it was impossible to make informed decisions about where to stock what, or where to place the merchandising materials meant to lure shoppers.
By the time our study was completed, we could say which percentage of customers used which paths into each of the sections. Once we knew that, it was clear, for instance, that much of the signage was misplaced — common sense dictated that it be positioned to face the main entrance of the store, but we found that most jeans shoppers came upon the section from a completely different direction. Even the client's big neon logo and a monitor showing rock videos were facing the wrong way if their job was to signal the greatest number of shoppers. We tracked shoppers from table to table, seeing where they stopped, what signs they read, whether they noticed the video monitors, and how they handled the merchandise, including whether they took anything to the dressing rooms. If they seemed to be showing jeans to a companion, we noted that, too. Some of the shoppers captured on video were also questioned by our interviewers, so that their demographic information and their attitudes and opinions could be correlated with their behaviors — to see, for example, whether young shoppers with high school educations who say they depend on name brand when choosing jeans read price tags. After the research is done and the numbers are crunched and analyzed, we see what sense can be made of what we've learned. For example, if we were to find that a high percentage of male shoppers buy from the first rack of jeans they encounter, and that shoppers tend to enter the section through the aisle leading from men's accessories rather than from the women's side of the store or from the escalator, then we would advise our client to ask for the display table nearest men's accessories. Or maybe there's another determining factor — maybe men who are accompanied by females and entering the section from the women's department buy more jeans than men who are alone. in that case, the best table would be nearest the women's merchandise. But no one knows for sure until we collect the data.
In other instances we're hired to study some small retail interaction in great detail. One such project was commissioned by a premium shampoo maker that wanted to know about the decision-making process of women shoppers who buy generic or store-brand beauty products. The client was interested in the "value equation" women bring to each shopping experience — how does the shopper who buys from the generics section at the supermarket in the morning and then from Nordstrom in the afternoon decide which product she'll buy where? Does she judge that her skin deserves the premium brand but her hair can settle for the generic? Once upon a time only the budget-conscious bought store brands, but now you find them in everyone's shopping basket. Let's call her shopper number 24, a thirtysomething woman in yellow pants and white sweater, accompanied by a preschool girl, who enters the health and beauty aisle of a supermarket at 10:37 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She has a handbasket, not a shopping cart, and has already selected store-brand vitamin C capsules, a large container of Johnson's Baby Powder and a packet of snapshots she picked up at the photo-processing booth. She is also holding a shopping list and the store circular. She goes directly to the shampoo shelves and picks up a bottle of Pantene brand, reads the front label, then picks up a bottle of the store brand and reads the front label, then reads the price tag on the Pantene, then reads the price on the store brand, and then puts the store brand in her basket and exits the section forty-nine seconds after she entered it. In that brief encounter, there was lots of data to collect — what she touched, what she read and in what order, about twenty-five different data points in all. If, in one day, we track a hundred shoppers in that store's health and beauty aisle, it can amount to 2,500 separate data entries. As the woman exits the section, we interview her, asking twenty questions in all. So each of the twenty-five data points has to be cross-tabulated with each of her twenty answers — a cross-tab challenge, take it from me.
No university, to my knowledge, has ever attempted behavioral research in the retail environment to the degree that we have. My old colleagues in the world of academia regard what we do with envy and horror — envy because we get to do what we do and get paid for it, horror because we actually stick our necks out and are held accountable for the success or failure of our suggestions. After almost twenty years of work, our client list is as blue-chip as they come, and while we do get it wrong sometimes, three-quarters of our clients who buy us once come back for more.
Copyright © 1998 by Obat, Inc.