Research shows that women are more demanding when they shop and influence up to 80 per cent of purchases. Charlotte Hardie finds out how retailers can cash in by tapping into the female psyche.

You wouldn’t expect the editorial team of a lads’ magazine to be staffed entirely by women, would you? Imagine it, a group of women sat around a table trying to decide the ultimate cool gadgets for men or, for that matter, choose the “High street honey of the week”.

The point is, retail businesses are largely run by men. And no matter how hard they try, men cannot think like women and vice versa.

Fear not, this is not the beginnings of an indignant rant about the inherent, irreconcilable differences between the two sexes. Rather, it is a constructive analysis of how retailers can do more to understand the many complex and – it must be said – sometimes downright peculiar traits of the female shopper, as many brands are losing out on valuable sales and loyal customers because they fail to do so. It doesn’t necessarily require a dramatic shift in strategy and many retailers do meet their female shoppers’ exacting demands well, but there are many, often minor, changes that could be made to generate significant sales growth.

Original Factory Shop chief executive Angela Spindler says: “Countless men are fantastic retailers because they know exactly how their female shoppers behave. However, because many good product and price decisions are often based on empathy with customers, if you are one of those customers, then that undoubtedly helps.”

Firstly, it’s important not to underestimate women’s spending power. They are, in short, usually the ones with the say. Estimates vary, but it is thought about 80 per cent of consumer purchases are influenced by women. What’s more, they are gaining increasing financial independence and are living longer than men. It shouldn’t take much for retailers to work out the fallout of failing to meet these shoppers’ expectations.

XandY Communications researches the scientific reasons behind gender differences and applies that to business practices. Chief executive Collette Dunkley says: “Many retailers will say they have female non-executives on the board, but they’re not the ones involved with making these kinds of decisions.” She adds: “Men often nod their head and do nothing about it. What retailers are doing is assuming that the same old formula works.”

Different strokes

So how do these biological differences manifest themselves? Firstly, and unsurprisingly, women’s purchases are based on emotion. Men’s forays down the high street are almost entirely driven by logic.

Dunkley says there are several crucial factors retailers must get right if they are to please female shoppers. She believes the most important is the way in which staff interact with customers. “Very few companies teach how to sell differently to men and women,” she explains. “The relationship with the salesperson is very important and I can name so many shops where staff oversell. Women often feel patronised or made to feel stupid by technical sales. That’s often what salesmen do and then they launch into reeling off prices. If women feel they’re using a linear script, she’ll probably ignore them.”

Jason Kemp, managing director of store operations consultancy Envision Retail, says its studies of how women behave when they shop have shown they often like to be left alone, but want to know an assistant is nearby if required. “They want to be led and have a vision created for them, but men want to be told, to a certain extent. They need far more guidance.”

The second is the retail environment. Women have higher sensory receptors. Loud noises, unpleasant smells, a dusty store – these annoyances will tend to wash over men. Women rarely fail to notice such store transgressions. Nor are they likely to forget, which leads on to the issue of word of mouth recommendations. Dunkley says women generate between two and seven times more word of mouth referrals than men do. Uncommunicative staff or an unpleasant store environment is far more likely to be talked about, so it pays to get the details right.

Alison Middleton left her role as Space NK commercial director in December and now runs consultancy AM Retail. She says many retailers fall into the trap of assuming all women respond to highly feminine, embellished store environments. They don’t. Because women are more sensitive to their environment, an over-stylised store can actually detract from the supposedly simple task at hand – that is, finding products and spending money.

She believes there can be an “overemphasis on store layout and store design”. While this may appeal to younger female shoppers, older age groups don’t always find it necessary. She says: “One of the reasons why Zara is so successful is because it’s just about the clothes. You don’t always need bells and whistles. Really it should be about the quality of the merchandise.”

Kemp adds that women despise being jostled when they are browsing. In busy stores on a Saturday morning this may be difficult to avoid, but retailers should think about how store layout can maximise personal space and should bear in mind areas that are busier than others. Men tend not to notice so much if they feel crowded. They are there to buy and will make a beeline for the products they want, find them, buy them and leave. But if women feel crowded by others they will often abandon potential purchases altogether. Spindler adds: “It’s sometimes not considered that people have buggies or small children in tow and ease of shop can sometimes be compromised because of a desire to put maximum product on the shopfloor.”

Another factor to consider is messages given out in marketing material. Women are far more influenced by lifestyle publications and by what their friends say. Dunkley says: “The types of communication you need to use are totally different. Men are interested in the attributes of the product. Women are more interested in how it fits into their life.”

Middleton says: “At Space NK we understood what was going on in people’s lives and sometimes retailers don’t do that.” Because most of its shoppers were working mothers or professionals it would run champagne evenings after work, when those women with children would have time to leave them with their partners. Or, it would run events at lunchtime for those who could drop by on their lunch breaks.

As Spindler says: “It’s about listening to customers, talking to them and making sure what you are doing is representative of the female population, particularly during these unprecedented times.”

As the downturn deepens, B&Q is finding more women than men are embarking on DIY compared with this time last year and attributes the increase in female shoppers to the repositioning of its brand to appeal to women. It has, for instance, introduced premium, female-friendly brands such as Fired Earth paints, Monsoon lighting and branded designer wallpapers. It also sells step by step guides and DVDs for tasks such as laying laminate flooring.

B&Q designer and style manager Fionnuala Johnston says: “What’s fascinating is that having been enticed through our doors, women are now more comfortable in our stores and are becoming increasingly confident with the home improvement projects they are taking on.”

Ultimately, women shop and men buy. In a trading environment where every sale counts, retailers need to ensure they do everything possible to tempt women into their stores and keep them there. The idea of delving a little deeper into the often complex female psyche may not sound particularly appealing, but it becomes more tempting when you consider it may result in more cash in the till.

On a final note, the stealthy nature of women’s shopping habits should not go unnoticed. Kemp says that since the UK economy began its slide into recession, his studies have noted a marked increase in those women paying half cash and half on card for fashion items. They are deliberately choosing basic, low-statement goods that their partners are unlikely to notice, subtly siphoning off cash allocated to household spending so they can treat themselves undetected. Just a little more food for thought for all those male retailers out there.

Why men and women shop differently

Scientific research concludes that male and female brains are distinct. Women’s brains are 10 to 15 per cent smaller than men’s, but each sex has areas that are proportionally larger. Male and female brains not only differ in size, they differ in structure and functionality. As such, men and women do not communicate, shop and make decisions in the same way and both have different expectations from the customer experience.

  • The frontal lobe: the area concerned with decision making and problem solving is proportionally larger in women.

  • The hippocampus: the area responsible for memory and spatial memory is proportionally larger in women.

  • The limbic cortex: regulates emotion and is larger in women.

    Source: The New Scientist

Top tips to boost women’s spend

  • Train your staff: men and women’s expectations and desired relationship with a salesperson are completely different. Getting staff to understand the different buying criteria, buying signals and ways of talking and using language are the most cost-effective ways to make a impact.

  • Be patient: women take longer and shop around more. Never interrupt or try and second guess the female customer – let her talk and articulate why she is looking for a specific item.

  • Understand the importance of word of mouth:women make several more referrals (good and bad) about any shopping experience.

  • Don’t focus on product features: instead, make the product relevant to her life – be it electricals goods or fashion items.

  • Get the environment right: women’s sensory receptors are higher than men’s; try to maximise the whole shopping experience.

    Source: XandY Communications