Female-led categories are netting the highest growth rates online, so should web sites be adapted to suit how women shop? Joanna Perry finds out.

The clichés surrounding the differences in the way that men and women shop could fill a whole article in their own right. But can the same generalisations be made when it comes to online and, if so, are online retailers adapting their web sites to make the most of the rise of the female online shopper?

Shopping.com head of merchant services David Mackenzie says that online retailers need to take female consumers seriously. “Women have represented half of the online population for a long time and, according to some research, their average online spend is significantly higher,” he says. “About 20 per cent of sales made online are in categories where women are the predominant purchaser – for example, clothing, homewares and furniture, and health and beauty. These categories are also the fastest growing – both on Shopping.com and the internet as a whole.”
But just because women are shopping more on the web, must retailers adapt their web sites to make them more appealing to one half of the population?

At B&Q, the female shopper is being taken very seriously. B&Q director of multichannel Jonathon Brown says that there is a younger, richer and more female bias for customers on its site, compared with its stores.

The retailer accepts that the majority of home improvement decisions are made by women. So B&Q is looking at how its web site appeals to the mainly female, design-led component of its customers, compared with the mostly male, fact-finding and logistics customers.
Brown says redesign work on the web site should reflect this. It has already added creative tools to its site, such as its interactive room designer, where customers can upload the specifications of a room to create a 3D model and then redesign it. Brown says sales of coloured paint and wallpaper ranges have taken off as a result.

Similarly, B&Q’s bathroom planner was designed to drive online sales and footfall, and bathroom sales are up 100 per cent year on year. Customers spend 23 minutes on average using the planner to design a bathroom, and more than 80 per cent say they would recommend it to a friend.
Web consultancy Salmon confirms that it is working with retailers on making their sites more attractive to women. Salmon web design manager Andy Jones says that retailers must think about both the aesthetics and functionality of their sites. He explains: “It is the tone of voice of the site that is attention-grabbing and the tools that affect the stickiness.”

When it comes to the “tone of voice” of the site, he says that female-focused sites are editorial-heavy at the moment, with retailers positioning themselves as experts on what’s hot. Jones adds that women are more interested in reading such content, while men tend to scan it for key words and are only interested in basics such as price and material.

Sites such as Asos and Topshop are well-known for their magazine-style content, but more traditional retailers have also adopted this approach. On John Lewis’s site, for instance, category pages have been given more of a magazine feel and the retailer is planning more developments online over the summer months.

Imagery is also important – both that which shows entire looks and product imagery – while zoom tools are a must. Jones says younger women have a preference for fashion products being shown on models rather than against a plain background.
However, he adds that women are not only interested in the way a site looks, but also its functionality. So it is great to show pictures of models in outfits, but Jones says that, to make the most of this, customers should be able to add the entire outfit to their shopping basket without having to trawl the site for individual items.

Another of his tips supports PayPal’s finding (see box) that women enjoy browsing more on the web. Jones says that they appreciate it when products they have added to a basket or wish list are saved if they navigate away from the site and return to it at a later date.
Another recommendation is not to punish customers who do something wrong on a site. For instance, if they are filling in a form, error messages should be linked to the appropriate form field, rather than running a bright red error message across the top of the page. Jones explains that such observations are the result of extensive research and usability testing with its clients’ customers.

The latest shopping sites allow shoppers to navigate in a variety of ways, rather than making assumptions. Mydeco.com chief executive David Kelly, speaking at Google’s Retail Summit last month, explained that the retailer’s site has been designed to allow consumers to shop in the way that suits them. They can choose a classic female or male shopping experience (browsing versus buying the first suitable thing you see), but also choose to shop for home furnishings in new ways, such as by colour. He said that the technology should be focused on supporting the underlying customer experience. However, he added that a lot more research is needed into what people do before they buy.

Another thing that women are doing online apart from shopping is socialising. A study undertaken in the US by online research firm Rapleaf, in which it analysed the social networking profiles of 49.3 million US consumers, has shown that women are more likely than men to use the web to build and nurture relationships.

Perhaps this explains why many of the web sites created that mix shopping and social networks are targeted at women. Osoyou.com and MyFaveShop.com, for example, both mix fashion and social networking. Although MyFaveShop is not exclusively targeted at women, a spokesman admitted that the site is biased towards women and 18- to 30-year-olds.

In addition, Jones is receiving a lot of approaches from retailers that want to engage with their clients through Facebook. This can be a fun and cheap way of experimenting with how much women are prepared to combine socialising and shopping online.
However, the overriding lesson that retailers are learning is that customers – whether men or women – don’t like to be pigeonholed and forced to shop in a particular way. The online stores that will attract women most will be the ones that give them freedom to shop in the way that they want.

Gender specifics

A survey probing consumer behaviour online and attitudes to internet shopping from PayPal has identified where men and women differ most. 2,000 males and females aged between 16 and 65 were quizzed in June by The Future Laboratory. Findings included:

- 63 per cent of women agree that they love to shop from the comfort of their own home, compared with only 45 per cent of men
- 26 per cent of women say that family commitments affect their ability to shop online, while only 19 per cent of men agree
- Women are more likely than men to shop online in the morning, while men are more likely to shop in the late evening
- Women are more likely to buy food and drink online than men (45 per cent versus 30 per cent)
- Women are more likely to buy clothing for themselves online than men (59 per cent versus 35 per cent)
- Women are more likely to buy toiletries online (29 per cent versus 15 per cent), as well as premium beauty products (26 per cent versus 11 per cent)

How to develop a solid online strategy

Figleaves.com founder and now eCommera director Michael Ross says that trading online at scale is hard to do well and easy to do badly.
At Google’s UK Retail Summit last month, he set out a simple 10-point plan of decisions that must be made by any retailer that wants to succeed online.

1) Plan – it is fundamental that there is a clear vision for the business
2) Proposition – you must decide how you will deliver on this plan
3) Place – the e-commerce equivalent of the shopfit, you must work out what the customer journey through your site will be like
4) Planogram – decide how the online store is laid out and what you will display in the shop’s window
5) Promotion – focus on the acquisition and retention of your customers
6) Promise – make sure you deliver what you say you will to consumers
7) Platform – Ross describes the development of e-commerce technology as an arms race, and retailers should be prepared for an ever-evolving network of systems and tools to bolt together
8) Process – you must work out how things get done once you are running an e-commerce business at scale
9) People – decisions need to be made about the team and where it should be placed within the overall organisation
10) Performance – you must find out what the profit and loss should look like for an online business, who you should benchmark against and what you should benchmark