What Do Women Want?

It’s pretty much a given that anyone who’s marketing anything is likely marketing it to women. By now, it’s well known to everyone in this game: Women are the world’s most powerful consumers.

They influence more than 83 percent of consumer purchasing decisions, buy over half of all new vehicles, and make up 40 percent of business travelers. Yet all those dollars tell only part of the story. Women are more brand-loyal than men, particularly to companies they feel support them and the issues that concern them.

Although it comes as no surprise that women have long ceased wearing cultured pearls and starched shirtwaists to do the vacuuming (personally, I use my Roomba), it did surprise even me to learn time spent online ranks number four (after sleeping, working, and time spent with family) for all women, not just single, urban Internet professionals.

This from research jointly commissioned by Yahoo and Starcom MediaVest Group. It was reported a month ago, but I caught up with Yahoo’s road show for marketers showcasing the study here in New York yesterday.

Online marketers and publishers have made new and conspicuous overtures toward women lately. Tremor, the Procter & Gamble Internet marketing division that’s so far focused solely on teens, just announced it will recruit 400,000, to 600,000 mothers to join its program. This week, the Walt Disney Internet Group launched FamilyFun TV, a feature that auto-downloads video of family-oriented crafts and activities. (Though obviously an effort to capitalize on the rich media opportunities of Disney’s other Motion products, notably ESPN Motion, none of the how-to FamilyFun videos so far contain any content that necessitates a video format.)

What’s most surprising about the Yahoo/Starcom road show wasn’t the discovery that women typically spend 19 to 24 hours per week online (the higher figure, naturally, applies to non-moms). In assembling the focus groups, the research team had trouble even finding what they defined as “light users.” Researchers had to up their definition of “light” to get panelists.

What also amazed is how fundamentally the Web has altered the shopping habits of Internet civilians, not just us grizzled veterans. The focus group interviews make me feel downright… mainstream. Very nearly all the women surveyed said they shop online; and 41 percent prefer shopping online to brick-and-mortar stores.

“Just go to Macy’s and try to buy something,” snapped one 60-ish woman in an interview. She went on to gripe about indifferent sales staff and blouses “on five different floors.” Tell me about it. Our office is within spitting distance of Macy’s flagship store. Macy’s comes to us — via UPS. None of the women who work here say they’ve set foot in the store in years.

“The Gap and Banana Republic are across the street from my office. I would never go in there at lunchtime with all the other locusts,” scoffed another woman in the study. She cited the ease of finding the colors and size she wants online. “And if you order enough, they don’t charge you for shipping.” Still another woman said on-site instant messaging could make or break a sale for her. She shops online for a level of customer service she can’t find in stores.

Mary Lou Quinlan, CEO of Just Ask a Woman, conducted the qualitative end of the research. She scoffs at the “myth” that women like to shop. Deterioration of customer service, long lines, cashiers who appear to be in training, and the clerk who looks at you sideways are reasons she cites for real-world shopping cart abandonment, walking out of the store before even getting the cart, or avoiding the store altogether. “There’s more pressure on brick-and-mortar stores,” she observes. “Their goal shouldn’t be ‘destination’ but ‘evacuation.'” Retail establishments must help women get in — and out — with what they came for.

Survey respondents had dozens of reasons for shopping online. Some said they spend more because they can find more of what they wanted. Others say they spend less, because the Web helps educate them about choices and prices.

Relationships and community were also surprisingly strong in some sectors. Brides-to-be who planned their weddings at The Knot went so far as to invite other Knot buddies to their weddings and expressed nostalgia for the shopping experience — and those online buddies — after they were married.

The best approach to online marketing and advertising, advises Quinlan, are messages that are objective and honest “like your smart best friend.”

Media buyers and agency creatives should bear in mind 83 percent of the consumer dollars women spend or influence go way beyond the grocery store and Victoria’s Secret. Did you know women compose nearly 40 percent of the NFL’s fan base?

Maybe it’s time for a fresh look at the media plan — or your retail strategy.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.