I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

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

Since the early 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 is female, according to retail consultant and self-proclaimed shopping anthropologist Paco Underhill.

A study commissioned by Women.com, San Mateo, CA, Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, and Internet market research firm Harris Interactive, Rochester, NY, confirmed this social reality when they found that women control 75 percent of family finances and 80 percent of family purchase decisions.

Underhill said, "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." Yet it's 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," he added. 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 pre-eminent online shoppers. This necessarily changes the game. Women shop differently from 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 which are still struggling to get basic features working right.

The migration of women to cyberspace shopping is a natural evolution. Forty-six percent of American women have Internet access, according to Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Strategis Group, both of Washington. A bit more than half, 26 million women, log on every day, and as many as two-thirds of those shoppers log on more than once a day, more than half from home.

Women are online roughly seven hours per week, either from home or work. This is three hours less than men, according to Media Metrix, New York. Women spent an average of $439 online in 1999, about $100 less than men.

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, Boston, reported that 42 percent 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.

Yet in the past six months, 9 million to 11 million women logged on for the first time, depending on either Pew or Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA. This clearly changes the balance of buying power and shifts the demographics to a slightly younger and less affluent crowd. The highest concentration of women online is, as you might have guessed, in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area.

Early evidence of quick shopping adoption is scattered but compelling. In aggregate, 21 million women have bought something online. Those accessing the Net from home have bought twice as much as those logging on at work. On any given day, 4 million women make a purchase while another 13 million are researching a future purchase, according to a survey commissioned by Women.com and Procter & Gamble. In its most recent survey, Yankelovich, Norwalk, CT, found that 93 percent of women research future purchases and 85 percent of women buy online.

A study from Northstar Interactive, New York, breathlessly proclaimed the Internet as the premier shopping influence for women. In a survey, 67 percent of women said the Internet was the most important source for shopping information, outpacing word-of-mouth (55 percent) and mail order catalogs (51 percent).

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 healthcare decision-maker in virtually every household. They also buy food, health and beauty aids and cleaning products, acquire goods and services to furnish, decorate or maintain the house and household routines, and buy for children or aging parents. (When you consider this list, you realize that men basically buy their own toys and occasionally cover their pets.)

So it's not particularly surprising that both Ernst & Young and Bizrate.com discovered that health and beauty aid, apparel, toy and greeting card sites like JCPenney.com, Disney.com, eToys.com, egreetings.com, BlueMountainArts.com, PlanetRx.com, Freeshop.com and Coolsavings.com ranked high with women. A hint of this continuing trend can be found in the April 2000 numbers. As the seasons changed and more women came online, apparel and footwear sales jumped up $48 million over the previous month.

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." It's pretty much the same act as the remote control. He flips. She sticks. The reason, he said, 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 BizRate.com 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 from which to buy.

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

o KISS. Keep it simple stupid. Manage the 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.

oShow 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. oStreamline editorial. Make photos and images big. Use zoom technology to show off details. Make type large 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.

oAim for one-click navigation. Try to put your goods or services within one click of purchase. Work toward an intuitive site navigation. Make it easy to ask questions and contact customer service. Put your returns policy in a prominent place. Use "bread crumbs" so she can retrace her steps easily.

oRecognize 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.

oPlan 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 ICQ or America Online's Instant Messenger program to facilitate virtual shopping trips among girlfriends will pay off in increased sales and loyalty.

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