Retail Guru Knows 'What Women Want' Women are wealthier, more powerful and more independent than ever. In What Women Want, Paco Underhill explains that smart businesses are adapting to accommodate women -- a group that makes up more than half of their customers, in many cases.
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Retail Guru Knows 'What Women Want'

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Retail Guru Knows 'What Women Want'

Retail Guru Knows 'What Women Want'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Retailers take note, a solid majority of adult American women now work outside the home, and large numbers steadily become more wealthy, powerful and independent, a trend that's only likely to continue as a solid majority of those now in institutions of higher education are women.

And women know what they want. Retail guru Paco Underhill says if businesses don't take their preferences and expectations into account, they risk the loss of more than half their customers. And while Underhill's clients include Target, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Starbucks, McDonald's and Estee Lauder, the principles apply as well to cars, appliances, houses, hotels, restaurants, banks, even shower curtains.

Women's interests have already reshaped our once-male-oriented world in many ways. There are still a lot of hard edges out there, though. Today, we want to hear from women. Have you noticed how the world is accommodating to you? What's left to be changed? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, inside the mind of anonymous posters. But first, Paco Underhill joins us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. His new book is "What Women Want: The Global Marketplace Turns Female Friendly." Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. PACO UNDERHILL (Author, "What Women Want: The Global Marketplace Turns Female Friendly"): Thank you, Neal, it's a pleasure to be back at NPR.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about one of the examples you raise in your book, something I'd never thought of. I've experienced it before, but I'd never thought of it, bowed shower curtains.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Neal, when you check into a hotel, are you conscious of the fact that there have been 365 strangers staying in that hotel room over the past year since you checked in?

CONAN: Not until you mentioned it. Now it's a little creepy.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Yeah, and you think about what is it that gets touched or washed or wiped down. One of the things that doesn't get wiped down is the inside of the shower - shower curtain. So by bowing the shower curtain, it doesn't have to touch you.

CONAN: And this matters, you write, a great deal more to women than to men.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think one of the seminal issues in terms of women's choices is the issue of hygiene, and that is something that is wired into their systems, to just be much more conscious of it than you or I are.

CONAN: There are other principles you write about, not just hygiene, but safety. And one of the examples you give is hotels going back to that example where there is more than one door with access to the lobby.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think there are a number of things. You know, I'm 6'4", I weigh 220 pounds. If I'm checking in to the Marriott O'Hare, and somebody says Mr. Underhill, you're in room 722 in a loud voice, I don't have a security alarm that goes off in my head.

But if you're female, it does. Just in the same sense that if you check into a motel, and there's a there's access to your door from some room that doesn't pass through the lobby, that's conceived of as a security risk.

We, as a company with 140 employees, try not to put anyone traveling in a hotel room in a place that doesn't give my female employees a basic sense of security.

CONAN: And I had not realized, until I read this book, that the difference between what I experienced 20 years ago here, Mr. Conan, you're in Room 114 to being handed that little folder with a card key in it with a room number discretely written down, and nobody ever says my name out loud or in fact what room I'm in.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, thank you. I think we have been able to make some changes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And that is a change, you say, primarily directed at women.

Mr. UNDERHILL: That is an acknowledgement that the female traveler, or the female business traveler, is one of the most brand-conscious and security-conscious customers you have out there. And you fail her, she doesn't forget it.

CONAN: Control is another one of the principles that you write about that matters a great deal to women. In what context?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, whether it's control of the family, whether it's control of the family budget; control, respect, acknowledgement are all very critical aspects to the evolution of the female species.

CONAN: And in what ways there are so many people, you write about all of these changes, and they are in some ways profound. Nevertheless, there are a lot of places that don't change.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, you wonder why, if half the cars are driven on the road today are driven by women, and that women have driven the introduction of the SUV, the introduction of the minivan, why the female driver isn't a more important part of the automotive industry marketing engine.

CONAN: And in what way could the design it's interesting. You say the SUV was designed for women?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Oh, sure. SUV gave women a greater sense of safety.

CONAN: That big feeling of a lot of metal, being high up off the road like that?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Absolutely.

CONAN: And in what ways could they be more accommodating to women?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, it's - first of all, is the acknowledgement that women chose cars not based on the color. And one of the things that we're recognized is that the sales force inside the dealerships is largely male, and that our studies have shown women doing their pre-shopping online and coming in simply because, with the facts in hand, the experience there is quite miserable.

Actually, Neal, you know, one of the origins of this book was an experience I had working in Europe for one of the big auto companies. And we would do these hit-and-run inspections of dealerships.

And I learned that one of the places I needed to take the senior executives, as we would visit a dealership, is take them into the female restroom inside the dealership, and turn to them and say: Do you think your wife would like to do her business here?

And the answer was universally no. And I said: Isn't this an important part of the basic services of this dealership - is giving good restroom? The shopping mall owners have figured that out. The movie theaters started to figure out. All we are looking for is maybe the airlines to start figuring out that having a men's room and a women's room on that transatlantic flight might be a gesture to hygiene.

CONAN: We're talking with Paco Underhill, his new book, "What Women Want: The Global Marketplace Turns Female Friendly." And we'd like to hear your thoughts, women in our audience, about what ways the world has accommodated to you, what remains to be changed, 800-989-8255. Email us, And Rose(ph), Rose joins us from Augusta in Georgia. Rose, are you there?

ROSE (Caller): Yes, I am.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ROSE: Hi. I was just considering what happened to me here recently. I took my vehicle into a local car shop for just from Freon in my air conditioning. And they had a bathroom there with flowers in vases, and they had a bathroom that was so clean. They had a full-view glass window where you could actually see what they were doing to your car. And I thought that that was just fabulous. I mean, they have my business from here on out.

CONAN: And it sounds like you recognized quite a change from the past.

ROSE: Oh, yes. I mean, the men were all they were awfully clean for people who worked on cars, and they also put the mats in the car - not just the paper mats, but they actually had mats that they put in my car so that they wouldn't dirty it up. I thought that was just fabulous. I mean, I was outdone.

CONAN: And Paco Underhill, the operative phrase in Rose's comments: And they have my business from now on.

Mr. UNDERHILL: It is a it's often a very painfully simple exercise in on-the-ground branding.

CONAN: Rose, thanks very much for the call, and we hope you have that experience everywhere.

ROSE: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Martha(ph), Martha with us from Indian Mound in Tennessee.

MARTHA (Caller): Well, for one thing, Mr. Underhill said that women and men have different shopping styles and that men like to go in and grab it and kill it and drag it out, and women like to take more time.

I don't. My problem is that I know what I want when I go to shop, and I can seldom find it. And a big example of that is garden tools. And I have finally found a line of garden tools that are ergonomically designed. And one thing I noticed is that the handles on the shovels are shorter, but most of the tools that I'm looking for are designed for 600-pound gorillas.

I do most of the gardening and farm work around here. My husband doesn't. He just keeps the tractor going. But I bought a pole saw to replace a good pole saw that I had for years and years. It finally got to the point where I couldn't start it.

And the only one I could find that well, the one that I ended up buying because it got the best ratings on Amazon, the handle was too long. The distance from where you hold the handle to keep the thing balanced and where the trigger on the dead man's switch is, it's so far out that I think that's one of the things that contributed to my rotator cuff problem that I've got right now.

I can't find the stuff I need to do the stuff I need to do. Ninety percent of the gardening I know of is done by women, and we can't find the stuff we need.

And you go to a garden convention, and there are going to be 99 percent women, more than likely. But and then I like growing as much of my own food as I can, but we need things that are easy to start and things that are designed for somebody who's a little bit smaller than an 800-pound gorilla. I stand 5'3" and 130 pounds.

CONAN: And Paco Underhill, that sounds like a marketing opportunity.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think that is actually one of the chapters in the book here, is about tool-belt divas. Women are responsible for more than $50 billion of basically do-it-yourself, whether it's fixing up homes, whether it's taking care of gardens, whether it's being the responsible adult taking care of their durable belongings. It's there.

CONAN: Martha, happy gardening, and we hope things improve for you.

MARTHA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Paco Underhill. His new book is "What Women Want: The Global Marketplace Turns Female Friendly." And we'll get more of your calls in just a moment. Women, how have you noticed the world accommodating to you? What's left to be changed? And I wonder if we might hear from some men, too. Have you noticed the change, too? And maybe, has it gone too far some places? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us,

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In many ways, women are now pulling ahead of men in terms of education, employment rates, even paychecks in some cities. Women have a number of advantages in modern times, from temperament in grade school to advances in birth control that boost their earning power. And businesses are paying attention, adapting to what women want to get them into their shops and hotels and restaurants.

You can read more in an excerpt from Paco Underhill's book. It's titled, appropriately, "What Women Want." Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We want to hear from the women in our audience. Have you noticed how the world is changing to accommodate you? What still needs to be done? Men, how does this affect you? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at that aforementioned website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Affirmation from Jackie(ph) about a point we made earlier: I've traveled for many years by myself. I've always stayed at Motel 6. They never repeat my name or my room number out loud while in the lobby. They point it to me on my receipt.

In any case, Paco Underhill is with us from the Radio Foundation studio in New York City. Why do you describe the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the great villains of the 20th century?

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think Frank Lloyd Wright and his co-villain, Henry Ford, made the suburbs possible. They somehow conceived of a life where there was a hearth and a little tiny house on a little piece of land, and they took us away from the village and the community life that had provided for us, and required us to have cars, required us to drive every place that we went to.

And as we, in our present recession, have woken up and found that our houses are too big, our cars are too big, our debts are too big and our bellies are too big, and one of the things that we're thinking about is how we live the rest of our lives.

And that challenge becomes, in many ways, how do we re-conceive what the home is, in relationship to other people's homes.

CONAN: And there's some interesting thoughts in your book, about how homes, houses, have been redesigned to accommodate women.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, certainly, if we think about the modern home, the center of the home is the kitchen. That's where the family gathers. The seminal appliance in the kitchen is no longer the stove, it's the refrigerator.

If we look at the demographics, 70 percent of adult American women work outside the home, and one of the challenges that they have is being mothers, wives and bread-earners. And therefore the kitchen is no longer stuck on the back of the house, it's right up there in front.

CONAN: And at the same time, you describe miniaturized appliances like the under-counter microwave; and in some places, the, well, I guess the Hummer of the oven world, the gigantic, two-source, two-flame burners.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, you think about the entrance to a Williams-Sonoma store here in New York City, and they have two $32,000 stoves sort of flanked in front of them. I don't think Buckingham Palace needs those stoves.

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some more callers on the line, 800-989-8255. Janet's(ph) with us from Spanish Fork in Utah.

JANET (Caller): Hello, thank you.

CONAN: Hi, Janet, go ahead.

JANET: Out West here, I think it's just in the West, there's a company, a tire company, they do brakes and alignments and tires and the thing, Les Schwab. I'll tell you, I won't go anywhere else other than there because when I go, they don't condescend to me, you know, oh sweetheart, this is what you need for your tires on your car.

They hop to it fast. The restrooms are clean. I mean, they're rudimentary, but they're clean. But they don't treat me any less than they do any man when they come in there. I don't feel like it's the good old boy network when I walk in, and they're not condescending, and they treat me just the same.

CONAN: Do they have women as part of the sales force?

JANET: Yeah, there are usually women behind the desk. The job that they have is sometimes they'll have women in the alignment and stuff, but mostly, there are men running, but then run 90 miles an hour. I mean, they're literally running. They don't they jog everywhere they go. So it makes you feel like they're really doing a great job for you when they do it.

But the point is that they don't treat me they don't demean me. I feel safe going there, that I'm going to be treated well. I'm not going to be up-sold or sold something I don't want or convinced, or whatever. I'm just treated just exactly the same as the men, and that's really big to me.

CONAN: And how are their prices, by the way?

JANET: They're good. They're just as pretty good as everybody else. But you know, I'd pay more for the service, just to know that I was being treated well, the same as men, you know, just the same. And they do have a place to hang out and watch TV and eat popcorn. They always have all that kind of stuff, anyhow. So it is comfortable, and it's always clean, always sparkling clean.

The one thing that does need to be cleaned up, I mean be better for women, every event I've ever gone to, there's a line at the bathroom, and the men never have a line.

So the bathrooms in the construction need to be twice as many or twice as big for the women to accommodate.

CONAN: It's been interesting to see some of the new run of baseball parks that have opened and much more space in the women's room than there used to be.

JANET: Well, as long as there are more stalls. I mean, we all...

CONAN: I have not been in there, but I understand there are more stalls, too.

JANET: Well, that's all right. But, you know, we all stand there in line and say we ought to go over there, there's not any men in line, and take over that bathroom. I mean, like, en masse. We talk about it.

CONAN: Paco Underhill, you were trying to get in. I apologize.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I gave a lecture at the Public Library Association a couple years ago, at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. And they took over two-thirds of the men's rooms and re-branded them for the conference here, which I thought was an absolutely brilliant move.

But Neal, do you notice that she used the word, security? I feel safe going there.

CONAN: Absolutely.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Whereas for you and I, the issue of many places, the concept of whether it's secure or not doesn't even come up on our radar screen.

CONAN: No, it wouldn't. The issue of competence and speed and not being demeaned to would be important, but safety wouldn't enter into it, no.


CONAN: All right. Janet, thanks very much.

JANET: You bet.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Here's an email from Donna(ph) in Edina, Minnesota. Please don't advocate for women's and men's restrooms on flights. A huge frustration of mine is the single toilet stall unused because the door says men while a line of women waits. How about all single restrooms labeled just restroom and set up with flowers, one caller mentioned, and maybe the men will be neater.

Well, good luck with that last part.

And this from Susan(ph): I've had experience as a female business owner obtaining loans and buying cars since 1985. I just bought a new car in April. The dealership that got my business treated me like a person who could person who could do this on my own, exclamation point she puts in there, and let me bring my dog, my constant companion, into the dealership and the restroom and the car with me while I test drove the cars, wrote up the paperwork and now while I'm getting my car serviced.

Twenty years ago, I couldn't get a business loan to buy a computer and stenotype machine and new software from most of the banks I went to, simply because I was a woman. That attitude has changed, too, over time.

And Paco Underhill, one of the places you write about, interestingly, is the home office, which is again adapting to the uses of women, very different from the ones our parents had, which were, as you describe them, escapes.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, I can remember my father going into either his shop or his office and basically slamming the door, and it was a signal for us that we weren't supposed to bother him. Whereas now, part of what the home office is for a mother is a place where she can monitor her kids, meaning she gets to peek over their shoulders and see what they are surfing online or what they're not doing online.

She it's a place to help people supervise their homework, and it's the recognition that in 2010, women are the backbones of small-business creation. They are entrepreneurial. You look at the office product superstores Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot one of the remarkable transformations that they have gone through over the past seven years is the concerted effort to make it a much more pleasant place for the working woman, and the working woman entrepreneur, to visit and shop.

CONAN: That's true, but interesting, you pointed out that some of the other big-box stores, the construction places, the home-improvement places - when they tried to adapt to women, they lost some of their original customer base.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, I think one of the issues that the home-improvement industry had is how do we serve a very disparate cross-section of customers. Where, you know, at 7 o'clock in the morning, we have the contractors coming in who often are there every single day, want to get in and out and know exactly what they want, they don't need instructions, and they really want to come in to a warehouse and truck it out.

In that same store, at 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning, you have an affluent, home-owning audience that wants to be able to buy stuff, but wants to be coached along the way. It reminds me a bit of the dilemma that Harley-Davidson confronted, you know, maybe 15 years ago, where you had motorheads, male menopause victims and kids buying the apparel who are all in the store, and all three groups hated each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They've managed to figure that out, I think.

Mr. UNDERHILL: They have figured it out, haven't they?

CONAN: Here's an email from Damon in Hudson, Wisconsin: I think marketing to women can sometimes go too far or be attached the wrong stereotypes. My wife and I are avid fly fishermen, and my wife hates seeing clothing, rods and reels marketed specifically toward women when it's simply unwarranted. Seeing things such a pink fly vest or a rod with pink lettering doesn't help her fish any better. It simply patronizes her, as she is an able-bodied individual who can out-fish most of the guys with the manly equipment.

And this from Vanessa in Nashville: I'm a 35-year-old married mother of four-year-old twins. I appreciate that while women are being recognized as a buying force in America, I don't appreciate the pandering. For example, a .45 caliber handgun named the Judge is a fine weapon. But in an effort to make women notice, it now can be purchased with a pink grip. Just because it's pink it does not mean I will buy it. In fact, I would buy the standard grip if I were to purchase this gun.

Why do we think, paint it pink, when we try to focus on females? That's pretty interesting.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think that's a - it's a standard response from a world that's owned by men, managed by men and designed by men, that if we simply change the color, that somehow it's going to make it female-friendly. And that's simply isn't true.

CONAN: One of the things you also write about is the approach that many people thought, well, if we're trying to appeal to women, why don't we go unisex? Why did that fail?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, you know something? If I go into a typical female closet, of a woman who's over the age of 15, there are probably a series of articles of apparel in that closet that were designed not for women, but for men. There's a blue jean jacket. There's a flannel shirt. There's a something. Whereas, Neal, if I went into your closet, I'm guessing I probably wouldn't find anything in your closet that was designed for females that has become part of your active repertoire. So that the unisex thing really failed in part because men didn't like it.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking to Paco Underhill, the author most recently of "What Women Want: The Global Marketplace Turns Female Friendly." He's spent more than 25 years researching shopping and behavior, and runs Envirosell, a consulting and research firm that studies behavior and retail environments. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Robin, Robin with us from San Jose.

ROBIN (Caller): Good morning. I used to - my wife was buying a new SUV a few years back. My job is - was, at that time - I used to work in the automobile industry, doing bodies. And I taught my wife, quite effectively, how to look at a body of the car and tell what all the errors and the problems are. So I used to love taking her into the dealerships. And the sales guy would come out and she would look at the car and say, you know, this door needed fixing, and that cornering needed doing, and this was not fitted correctly, and watch the guy, like, be reduced. It was kind of - and then he would turn to me, of course. I would say, well the color's lovely, and the upholstery's pretty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I love in the mirror in the driver's seat, yes.


ROBIN: And the thing was, the last time we went car shopping - and my wife does like her SUVs - we went a few years back. And they did - they had - it was a different dealership, and they had changed, and they still - they did - they give us the statistics for both of them. But I still do find some of the dealerships - one area we went into, and there was real cute, young, you know, lady, and - you know, we're kind of middle-aged, but we got the money. But they refused. They just didn't come to us. They went to the cute lady, and she was buying a secondhand car, less money than we were prepared to spend. So we'd ended up not buying, and we moved off, actually, and went and bought something somewhere else. So, you know, once the female is buying, if you're still young and cute, you still get the attraction of the male seller.

CONAN: The male sales staff, yeah.

ROBIN: Yeah.


ROBIN: Well, that still works, but, yeah. That's interesting.

CONAN: Thank you, Robin.


CONAN: Here's an email we have from Becky: Ha! I always thought the bowed shower curtain was a man perk, accommodating their broad shoulders without sacrificing square footage. And point two, I'm a woman traveler. I love not having to arrange for an iron and ironing board anymore. I can pretty much count on them being in every room. Love the little drip-dry line, but they seem to be getting rarer.

And this is from Cheryl(ph) in Lake Oswego, Oregon: I travel a lot in my profession, sometimes end up dining alone. Sometimes I'm treating myself to a special meal. Unfortunately, restaurants at all dining levels tend to treat women dining alone badly. We're usually taken to the least desirable seat in the restaurant, even if we have a reservation, or in a partially empty restaurant, we're often ignored by waiters and get minimal service. I've heard the comment that that's because women tend to tip poorly. I think this may be due, in part, to the service we receive. I tip well if the service is good, less if it's poor. I suspect this is true of most women who dine alone. Women dining alone are a growing demographic. We like to eat well, and restaurants would do well to treat us with greater respect.

And greater respect, I think, is the key to a lot of this, Paco.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I couldn't agree more, Neal.

CONAN: As you look ahead, what areas do you think most deserve attention, most changes that we're going to be seeing in the future?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, I think there's a - one of the institutions which I'm watching carefully, which I think is one of the dipsticks of modern change, is the U.S. Armed Forces, that if we think about the U.S. Army, the Navy and the Air Force, we are increasingly sending men and women out to face harm's way together. And I think the lessons that they learn in Afghanistan and here or Iraq, they are going to bring home with them. And as we move forward as a species, the fundamental relationship between men and women is just changing.

You know, Neal, I'm 58. I think of my father's generation - my father had no female friends that weren't somehow circumscribed by the relationship to his wife. Whereas, I'm guessing both you and I have females that we've known for 40 years, never dated, never kissed and yet are integral parts of our personal and professional lives.

CONAN: My boss, for one.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, good for her, and good for you.

CONAN: Paco Underhill, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. UNDERHILL: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Paco Underhill, the author of "What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly." He joined us today from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City.

Coming up: inside the mind of anonymous online commenters - Neil Swidey tracked down several of them. He'll tell us who they are and what they do and why they do it.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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