Gender vendors

Electronics marketers are eager to answer a question that even Freud had trouble with: What does a woman want?

Pity the poor high-tech marketer. All those products to pitch and half the human race to alienate.

Look no further, perhaps, than the TiVo digital video recorder. Is that just what a woman needs so she can watch "Ally McBeal" at 2 a.m.?

"Not really," says Carol McGarry of Schwartz Communications, a public-relations firm in Waltham, Mass. She bought one for her husband. But for herself? "Something that allows me to multitask is much more important for me," she says: a flat TV that fits snugly between the fridge and the stove, for instance.

Or consider the new iPod, Apple's personal music system with enough memory for 1,000 songs? "I don't know a thousand songs," deadpans Pat Wiklund. She's an independent organizational consultant for high-tech companies in Mountain View, Calif.

Not everything is a misfire. A new "high-tech" handbag, outfitted with a light that turns on when the bag is opened, elicits coos of delight from many women.

It's no surprise that marketers of the latest electronic gizmos, paid princely sums to figure out what women want, may not always get it right. Their approach has long been to use what worked for men. But that's a bit like getting only the British perspective on American Colonial history. Great male minds have been stumped, after all, including Freud, who famously said that what a woman wants is "the great question which I have not been able to answer."

But it's a question marketers are keen to answer. Women make up half the potential market for most new electronic products. They're less likely than ever

to wait for men to tell them what to buy. And perhaps most important, a lot of women are just as eager as men to get their hands on the latest electronic toy.

Charles Joujoute, a clerk at the Cingular Wireless kiosk in Boston's Prudential Center, explains the differences between men and women this way: "Men are more technical: 'What frequency does that work on?' he says. "Women are like, 'That phone's cute.' "

Making up their minds

The greatest difference between men and women when it comes to technology is not what they buy, according to a survey done for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). The survey found that women and men favor a lot of the same products such as DVDs, cellphones, computers, and digital cameras. Rather, it's the do-I-really-want-this brooding before the credit card comes out of the wallet that really distinguishes the sexes.

Female indecisiveness is amply documented. When Rhett was ready to marry Scarlett, Scarlett was still unsure. In our own day, Bridget Jones has just as much difficulty making up her mind. But behind such waffling, a rational thought process is at work - at least when it comes to technology.

Women distinguish between appliance technology and accessory technology, says Angela Gunn, a columnist for Yahoo Internet Life. When buying the former, most put function before form.

Take Arlene Vernon, a parent and human-resource consultant in Eden Prairie, Minn. She recently bought several high-tech appliances, and with matriarchal authority, delegated research to family members according to their expertise, visited different retailers, and ultimately - for her son's first stereo - devised a complex spreadsheet comparing sounds and prices.

Her style may not be typical of most women. But her practical sensibility and concern about efficiency are characteristic of female consumers of functional electronics. Change the product to something that's a potential fashion statement, though, and the dialog shifts dramatically, When they're buying the kind of electronic accessories they carry at all times, they're more likely to shell out extra dollars for just the right thing. The no-frills Ms. Vernon is no exception: For Christmas, she asked for a red - not forest green or navy blue - cellphone cover.

That's not to say a woman won't develop an emotional attachment to a computer - especially, if it's, say, a new lollipop orange iMac. Men constitute the majority of early adopters: They think, "It's new, I want it," Ms. Gunn says. But while a woman may be more likely to ponder the purchase, once the appliance is in her home or office, she might catch herself pausing to admire its "creamy silk" color or its aerodynamic curves.

Even Vernon lets slip a little Christmas-morning euphoria about her new office computer: "It's exciting," she says. "I sit down and look at my new screen and it's so much sharper from anything...."

Sound familiar, men?

Women and men ask different questions, and they go to different sources, too, the CEA survey found. The random sampling of 1,000 households found that men more often turn to the media for information. This could be interpreted (full disclosure: this reporter is female) as another expression of an old maxim about men: They hate to ask for directions.

For example, Rebecca Day, a technology editor for Popular Mechanics, says that many of her male friends are so afraid to admit ignorance that they enlist her as a shopping buddy who tags along and asks questions for them.

On the other hand, women are more likely to get information from conversations with co-workers, friends, spouses, and children. No one knows that better than Nancy Evans, editor and cofounder of iVillage.com, a women's website. She recalls when Palm Pilots first came out, women in her chatrooms constantly shared tips for using the new organizers.

In an ideal world, women would find that sort of camaraderie at Circuit City or Best Buy. Instead, Ms. Evans says, a woman at an electronics store is no better off than at a car dealership: Both venues tend to teem with testosterone, and in both, "they start talking to you in Greek," she says.

Andrea Learned, cofounder of the marketing firm ReachWomen, suggests that stores offer female clients comparative shopping advice: How do the Sony stereos fare next to the JVC brands? Sharing such tips, even if it promotes a product the store doesn't stock, can win a woman's loyalty in the long run, says Ms. Learned. And one woman's loyalty, she adds, can be all it takes to make fans out of an entire Tupperware party.

Guessing what women want

Driven by what she heard in her iVillage chatrooms, Evans approached Ford a few years ago with a proposal: a survey of women about what they look for in an SUV - a heart-to-heart between women and the auto industry.

Today, some Ford SUV models have incorporated many of their ideas, including cup holders large enough to hold a supersize soft drink and an extra rear-view mirror to let the driver keep an eye on kids in the back seat.

Ford is not alone. "There's definitely acknowledgment that women are a veritable market," says Catherine Markman, director of Evins Communications' tech division. She and others point to smaller home-theater systems, better communication applications in computers, and more attention to style since the mid-1980s.

Sometimes, however, an appeal to women comes off as a throwback to the days when manufacturers tried to sell toasters to wives with slogans like, "Perfect toast for your husband every morning." Ms. Wiklund, who favors her digital camera over all her electronic toys,can think of at least one egregious recent example of this: a cotton-candy-pink tool set in a Lillian Vernon catalogue. Such ideas, she says, stand on the "assumption that all women are the same."

Last month, at the CEA show in Las Vegas, JVC rolled out a line of car stereos designed for women. Chad Vogelsong, head of marketing for mobile electronics, says JVC plans to market the blue and green radios exclusively in women's magazines and has even worked out a deal with cosmetic brand Urban Decay, which will sell nail polish in the same green and blue.

Mobile electronics, especially, is a market dominated by men. The JVC line is the first for women. But the ads will feature Donna D'Errico of the show "Baywatch." Some women say this could backfire - not unlike the Claudia Schiffer Palm Pilots, which came out last year. "It's not enough to tell women it's sexy," says Ms. Markman. "You want to feel smart for making the purchase."

Markman believes just about any electronic could be sold even to the most practical of women, with the right marketing. Women scoff at iPods as frivolous memory? Markman suggests a campaign that features Thelma and Louise on the road with the sleek music player: No need to change tapes or worry about batteries.

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