To Be ‘Hers,’ or Not to Be?

I admit it. I initially think, “Alas, condescension,” when I hear that a company has developed a specific site for “her.” My thoughts quickly turn to how much I dislike pink and purple pastel palettes (say that three times fast) and pages of fluffy copy.

Forsooth, I was recently forced to consider it from another perspective. (That’s OK, I like learning new things.) Such gender segregation isn’t always a bad idea, but, of course, it depends on how well it’s done.

Cambridge SoundWorks, with sister site Hifi.com, is one example of a click-and-mortar company taking the time to consider today’s question. Since late 1999, a Cambridge/Hifi.com cross-disciplinary team of mainly women has been surveying, researching, developing, testing, and redeveloping a marketing-to-women initiative in the form of HerHifi.com.

The most obvious truths came to their attention with little analysis. Whilst simply observing female customer behavior in their main Cambridge SoundWorks store, they discovered that the path to the one female salesperson was practically a grooved beeline.

Much as I cringe to put this in print (portable-CD-player-plugged-into-boom-box woman that I am), the results of the Cambridge/Hifi.com development team’s quantitative study of 1,000 women was surprising: Over 53 percent feel intimidated when it comes to buying consumer electronics. Ouch. Thus was born “Ask Kate,” the HerHifi.com industry expert who promises “a solid answer in plain English,” with nary a casual mention of “PIP” (that’s picture-in-picture to you).

Women spend over $20 billion on home electronics these days, so Cambridge/Hifi.com didn’t stop at adding the “Kate” factor. It continued along in its research and constant redevelopment to further tend to what women want.

Prithee, then, what is different about the way we women perceive our home electronics? That’s easy. We tend to think of music CDs, television shows, and videos — and the components necessary to play them — as furnishings. So give us small, sleek, quality elements that all but fade into the full scheme of our rooms yet still create the mood we want or serve us up our favorite sitcoms. Taking this knowledge into account, HerHifi.com and now Hifi.com offer both a well-received “Shop By Room” feature and new merchandise specifically selected with a woman’s perspective in mind.

Men, on the other hand, are all about big woofers and major amps and seem to do just fine searching for products using long-since memorized product model numbers and measurements. Doth this surprise you? Yet, given the opportunity, and according to the Cambridge/Hifi.com team, men will happily peruse by room, too.

From a business perspective, creating, testing, and playing with the merchandising of an online “showroom” for any targeted market is preferable and much less expensive than doing the same in your offline digs. Also, since the best way to get your message across to women is word of mouth, the advertising budget for HerHifi.com didn’t have to be as monstrous as it might have been for a different type of site. In fact, I originally discovered HerHifi.com via word of mouth. It’s my preferred way to learn about new products, services, and sites. (And most other women I know also love getting a personal recommendation before they buy.)

And finally, the glaring question: Why a separate site for HerHifi.com at all? Well, truth be told, the final decision is still in limbo — so the folks at Hifi.com couldn’t give me a solid relaunch date for HerHifi.com. Initially (way back in 1999), their research seemed to point to women needing to know that this special “her” area was available for them. By now, though, many of the elements that Cambridge SoundWorks developed specifically for women have been incorporated successfully into the non-“her” site.

Most women probably don’t need that “his and hers” separation anymore. We’ve gotten used to digging around for the information we need. What Hifi.com now knows very well is that there will be no sale if you don’t pay attention to the details that matter to women. And it has responded.

No one expects companies to get it absolutely right from the beginning. Women’s decision-making processes are more complex than that. So it will take research and trying, trying again. “Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck“; rather, I’d make my decisions about reaching women consumers by being attentive, creative, and ready to adapt.

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