I was struck recently by a comment from the entrepreneur and one time owner of ‘experience’ company Red Letter Days, Rachel Elnaugh, about the rising influence of women consumers. According to Ms Elnaugh women now make more than 70% of all purchasing decisions! A sobering thought for the rather male orientated garden retail sector, and one with major implications we would be wise to explore.
Second only to the traditional ‘no frills’ hardware stores, garden centre retailing has traditionally been seen as one of the last bastions of retail masculinity, and in some cases very little has changed! Granted we have seen an increase in the choice and range of products ‘aimed’ at the female market, but that is not really the point. As Paco Underhill states in his exploration of ‘The Science of Shopping’, if these products are offered in a ‘masculine way’ then you might as well not stock them at all.
The retail provision of gardening products clearly has its roots in a ‘male’ market, having gradually evolved over decades from the consumer boom of the 1950s, with its corresponding rigid established gender roles. The home interior was the responsibility of the domestic housewife, and the ‘outside’ was the man’s domain, complete with its very masculine orientated items such as heavy push along mowers, pesticides, and utility garden equipment. The garden was to be kept in order, have a function (grow veg for example), or provide a pleasing aspect, but the idea of decorative garden effects not based on flowers and plants was a more feminine concept yet to come. From these beginnings, a male focused industry was born. Garden centres developed and (as now) tended to conform to a physical structure leaning towards a masculine shopping style. Large, open-plan spacious buildings with little individuality or decorative features offered a rather bland impersonal ’warehouse’ feel. Items were displayed functionally with little creativity, choice was basic, and service the minimum required. Hopefully most garden retailers have come a long way since these days, but most also could do much more to ensure they have contemporary appeal to both genders. If you are in retail, landscaping or any horticultural industry with a direct public offering, you really do need to be asking ‘what do women really want’.
Those who study consumer behaviour such as Paco Underhill have identified what we have all known for a long time, that there is a fundamental difference in the reasons why men and women shop and buy. Men buy primarily for reasons of practicality and are very ‘task orientated’. Their prime focus is the product and its price. They are less likely than women to take into account styles of merchandising and service. Men tend not to browse or read details about benefits or descriptions. In essence, they are quick, and the product is their main concern. Women however like choice, variety, and information. They choose more discerningly and spend more time over decisions. Ambiance, surroundings and all aspects of customer service are also important. (As the old saying goes, men shop, women have a retail experience.) Rachel Elnaugh also controversially suggests women view purchases from a more moral perspective, and are more likely to be attracted to fair trade and eco-friendly products. (This may of course be because they spend more time considering the implications and benefits of each item.)
Of course, these are generalisations and there are exceptions to the rule. What is clear however is that retailers today, especially those traditionally rooted in a masculine product need to cater for women, and to watch for trends arising through changes in women’s lifestyles. This does not of course mean coloured feather dusters and frilly trims on the average lawn mower!
Think first about your retail or business premises. Women prefer a more personal intimate environment, with small sectored areas in which to browse and examine products. According to Underhill they find this more comfortable, non-intimidating, and also simply a more interesting place in which to shop. Women tend not to buy if they have not been able to fully explore a product and check out the alternatives being offered, so they need to feel comfortable stopping, picking up and viewing products. With many garden centres still very open plan, spacious and a bit impersonal, this is an important point. Women also like to see potential purchases in use, hence the rise in displays showing items in domestic situations, e.g., table ware set out on a patio table for ‘al fresco’ dining. Many good retailers sell more through the use of ‘mini stage sets’ such as mini cottage kitchens, recognising that women are attracted to the ‘theatre’ of shopping, and like to be shown in a tangible way how a product could be used within their lives. A man might buy a boxed set of Christmas lights based on its cover picture, whereas a women is more likely to buy if she can see them turned on and attractively displayed. Sounds, scents and textures can also be used to create this ‘theatre’ environment in the merchandising of home, garden and lifestyle products.
So, more features, smaller segmented areas, theatre, creativity and space to browse. A good start! Another thing to remember however is that women don’t always shop alone. Studies have shown that women spend much longer (and spend more) if shopping with a female companion, so its worth perhaps offering promotions at your coffee shop for example, such as two for one coffees during week days. They also may be accompanied by children and buggies, in which case isle aisle space, and good child facilities are important. A large business might also find it profitable to provide a crèche for summer weekend afternoons.
Women are also statistically more likely than men to complain, and to expect good customer service. The process of shopping can be as important to them as the purchased product, and so a personal friendly shop assistant is of prime importance. (Surveys show women use automated checkout services less than men, perhaps because they value a more personal touch– or perhaps they simply have more to get through the checkout.). They are however not always the most demanding sex when it comes to shopping, with women being more likely than men to stay in a 5 to 10 minute queue in order to complete their purchases.
With women apparently controlling up to three quarters of your potential sales, it’s well worth giving your business a gender MOT. Obviously you don’t want to alienate male customers, so only make sensible changes that make sound retail sense and offer unisex appeal. Underhill suggested American retailers could make a great start just by making two simple changes. No ‘female’ products on bottom shelves (as apparently American women are disinclined to bend down in public), and more pleasant stylish customer toilets. And if that’s the bottom line, the only way is up!