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Real Men Don’t Go Shopping…Do They?

Posted By Ulash On May 29, 2010 @ 10:23 pm In | No Comments

 

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The stereotype of the (heterosexual) male: he hates to shop. Mighty hunter, goal-directed urban commando, he marches into the local drugstore for the pack of safety razors he came for. He ignores every other male hygiene product positioned in his path until he arrives at the cash register with his quarry. At the register, he might buy a pack of gum, mints or candy, if a particular flavor captures his fancy. At home, the wife is the decision-maker even for big-ticket items, with his tacit approval. And that’s the assumption retailers labored under for years.

Challenging the Old Stereotype

Enter Paco Underhill’s marketing classic Why We Buy, published in 1999. Underhill called one chapter “Shop Like a Man” in which he took an appraising, more evidence-based look at what happens when men go into stores. First, he answered the conventional wisdom that men hate to shop with “it depends.” Plenty of men can kill time unchaperoned by women in electronics stores, camera stores, even bookstores. Underhill cited the case of a retailer known for table settings and flatware. He observed that when a couple came into the store, the men often ended up in the glassware section. Eventually, he realized that they weren’t there looking at the candy dishes—they wanted barware! Videotapes of male shoppers showed men taking a stein in hand to mime pulling a beer on tap or checking out the ice tongs and shakers for a perfect martini. A gravy boat doesn’t support a James Bond fantasy, but the right martini glass is something a guy has a stake in finding.  Underhill’s point:  men can be engaged in the shopping experience if you meet them where they live.

Much of Underhill’s evidence gathered in the 1990s may not directly support the “men hate to shop” conventional wisdom, but it had a familiar ring of truth to it. He observed that men don’t like to talk to salespeople. Neither my husband nor my dad would ask a salesperson to throw water on him if he were on fire. Just as Underhill observed, they will read packaging and signage, watch the instructional video…and then just walk out empty-handed if they can’t figure out for certain which item fills their needs. Underhill also observed that men also spent less time looking at the merchandise.  Only 72% of the men Underhill observed looked at the price of an item, compared to 86% of women. Significantly, men bought an item they tried on 65% of the time, versus 25% for women. Men seemed to use the dressing room as a sanity check to make sure they can get into the pants (probably accounts for the large number of men who claim to wear the same size as they did in high school). Women fussed over whether or not the fit was flattering.

The grocery store seemed to be the place where the wheels fall off the goal-directed approach Underhill observed most men taking to retail. Faced with aisles of plenty, men showed themselves more prone to impulse buys than women. This tendency carried over to shopping with the kids, too. Kids shopping with Dad were more likely to get the sugary breakfast cereal or Pop Tarts or whatever other food Mom wouldn’t buy for them.

Cyberspace Counts

When Underhill wrote his marketing classic, only 1% of retail sales were online transactions. As of 2009, the U.S. Census reported online retail sales accounted for 3.4% of annual retail spending, and this sector is still experiencing double-digit growth. Cyberspace shopping appeals to men I might have considered shopping-challenged in the 1990s. There are no salespeople to butt in, limitless opportunities to compare and review a specific item of interest (how many photography websites does my husband have bookmarked?), and search engines take you to exactly what you want to see without the need to go through a bunch of stuff of no interest. Is it any wonder my husband’s first thought when he’s in the mood to buy is Amazon.com? Nightly, he surfs through photography and home theater websites. He also casually checks out Tom’s Hardware and Gizmodo to see what the latest electronic gadgets are, and this is a form of shopping, too. If he looks at a particular graphics card but isn’t planning to buy it immediately or possibly ever, is it still shopping? If you’re a woman, you’d probably say “you betcha!” That’s the classic definition of “browsing”. He would argue that point because in his mind, the term “shopping” is still the goal-directed activity I would call “buying”. Yep, he’s in cyberspace browsing a couple of hours per night, but I still get sent to JC Penney’s to pick up his shirts and ties for work…’cuz that’s shopping.

Mall Trek, the Next Generation

Another wrinkle to consider is in the habits of Generation Y men, too young to have carved out an identity when Underhill was doing his research for the 1999 book. Gen Y men go to the mall to “hang out”, an activity they would not equate with shopping in spite of “hanging out” in the Apple store, food court, electronics stores, etc. They also have more of an eye for style than do their fathers and grandfathers, knowing which brands they want for clothes and shoes. In GenBuy: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail, authors Kit Yarrow and Jayne O’Donnell maintain that gender roles in shopping are eroding, and they cite the growing interest in fashion and sale of more sophisticated male hygiene products as evidence.

It’s still true that men of this generation shop less frequently and stay in the stores for less time than do their female counterparts, but new shopping habits can’t be overlooked. Retailers targeting this demographic have learned to engage Gen Y men in an activity to make the experience feel less passive. Apple stores encourage men to play with the equipment, and Urban Outfitters tucks “toys” into their retail displays.

With people staying single longer and more tasks shifting into gender-neutral territory, retailers can’t afford to ignore the male shopper. Do men still hate to shop? Well, like most of the big questions in life, retailers are discovering that the answer is, “it depends on your definition.”

By Lisa Jancarik

 

Resources

http://ecommerce.suite101.com/article.cfm/third_quarter_2009_online_retail_sales_up_45 [2]

Underhill, Paco. Why We Buy. Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Yarrow, Kit, and Jayne O’Donnell. GenBuy: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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