Monday, February 21, 2005

Women Buy Everything: Work With Them

For Confucius, “Women hold up half the sky.” For futurist Watts Wacker, women are the only factor in modern life as men become simply exotic house pets. For e-tailers, women are becoming dominant shoppers demanding different shopping environments and functionality.

Since the early part of the 20th century women have owned shopping as a practical activity, as a personal gratification and as a sport. Simultaneously a symbol of social liberation, an outlet for intellectual and financial expression and a convenient ghetto, shopping, according to Paco Underhill, is female. A study commissioned by, P&G and Harris Interactive confirmed this social reality when they found that women control 75 percent of family finances, and 80 percent of family purchase decisions.

Underhill, a retail consultant and self-proclaimed shopping anthropologist, believes that “Women can go into a kind of revelry when they shop. They become absorbed in the ritual of seeking and comparing, of imagining and envisioning merchandise in use.” And yet its not frivolous. “ 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.” In my family and among my female friends, you can add the pride of getting the perfect thing at the perfect price, usually a discount measured in double digits.

So it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that as women close the online gender gap, they will become the preeminent online shoppers. This necessarily changes the game. Women shop differently than men. They are more discerning about merchandise. They do more advance research. They care about product care, laundering instructions, components and ingredients. They expect more convenience and service and care not a whit about the latest bells and whistles or the glory of evolving technology. Meeting this new, tougher set of expectations will be the deciding challenge of this holiday season for e-merchants, many of whom are still struggling to get basic functionalities working right.

Until recently women have been a steadily growing minority on the Net. Online savvy women have tended to be in their 30s or 40s and married. They’ve tracked with the upscale demographics of their male counterparts. The Boston Consulting Group reported that 42% of online women have been in cyberspace for three or more years and that slightly more than half have a year or less under their belts.

The early evidence of quick shopping adoption is scattered but compelling. In aggregate, twenty-one million women have bought something online. Those accessing the net from home have bought twice as much as those logging on at work.

If the newbies follow the patterns set by their cybersisters, site rankings and site functionality are in for big changes. One obvious reason is that women shop both for themselves and for others. Single women drive gift businesses. And married women serve as the health-care decision maker in virtually every household, buy food, HBA and cleaning products, acquire goods and services to furnish, decorate or maintain the house and household routines and buy for kids or aging parents. (When you consider this list, you realize that men basically buy their own toys and occasionally cover their pets.)

Goodbye Surfer Girl

What is surprising is that women’s’ shopping style changes online. According to Underhill, “ men and women switch sides when shopping on 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 then log off.” Its pretty much the same act as the remote control. He flips. She sticks. The reason, he opines, is that “women turn technology into appliances. Women see its purpose—its reason, what it can do” as the primary value. They care much less about the intrinsic qualities of the technology.

Data from confirms that women are “seekers” rather than surfers exhibiting the traditional male surgical shopping approach. Women make half as many purchases as men and spend only one-third as much time doing it. Women tend to visit fewer sites for shorter periods of time. However they tend to have longer online sessions than men and seem to be more loyal to the sites they elect to visit or buy from.

Addressing the needs of female online shoppers requires close attention to the following tactics:

KISS. Keep it simple. Manage the K size of images. Avoid downloads or plug-ins if you can. Don’t get carried way with Frames, Flash or other tools. Focus on getting her there quickly and establishing your positioning. She wants to get in and get out efficiently. Facilitate that for her.

Show Her the Beef. Your female visitor is there to shop. For her, this is serious business. She wants to see what you have and what it costs. Streamline editorial. Make photos and images big. Use zoom technology to show off details. Make type big enough to be seen without her glasses and in colors or fonts that will get instant recognition and understanding. Arrange merchandise sequences logically and use adjacencies for cross-selling or up-selling.

Aim For One-Click Navigation. Try to put your goods or services within one click of purchase. Work towards an intuitive site navigation. Make it easy for her to ask questions and contact customer service. Put your returns policy in a prominent place. Use “breadcrumbs” so she can retrace her steps easily.

Recognize Her. The more personal you can be, using opt-in techniques, the better her experience. Don’t bury your privacy policy. If you can dynamically serve her pages based on her shopping patterns, so much the better. Remember that the volume of merchandise sold is directly correlated to the time spent on your site. Using personalization techniques or offering live-chat assistance will increase the length of her session and the value of her shopping cart.

Plan for Group Activity. If you’ve ever been in a store, you know that two women shopping together can become a buying machine in record time. Offer your female shoppers opportunities to share the shopping experience. Chat rooms, the ability to e-mail products to friends, a wish list or gift registry, a personal shopper, group shopping or group discounts, the use of Instant Messenger to facilitate virtual shopping trips among girlfriends will pay off in increased sales and loyalty.


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