Every savvy retailer knows that the differences between men and women extend right down to the way they shop. Knowing this, e-commerce consulting firm Resource Interactive conducted research to explore a related question: do men and women shop differently online, too?
The answer, perhaps surprising no one, is a resounding 'yes.' The firm's research, conducted with the help of comScore Networks, tracked 326,000 purchases over four quarters and included hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with male and female shoppers.
The research focuses on what e-tailers need to be aware of to simultaneously reach male and female shoppers. It answers the question: Given the different online shopping styles of men and women, how can online merchants set up their sites to maximize sales from both genders?
The question is a critical one for most online stores. Between April of 2004 and March of 2005, women were responsible for 58 percent of online spending vs. men's 42 percent, according to comScore. To be sure, a hefty revenue stream goes to those e-tailers who cater to both sexes.
Stick to Their Mission vs. Expand Their Mission
Paco Underhill, the famed "shopping scientist" who advises the retail industry on shoppers' behaviors, stated in 2000 that women seek online objectives single-mindedly, while men stay online and surf.
But Resource Interactive's research contradicted this theory. To sum up one of the research's findings, "Men stick to their mission, women expand their mission," says Edd Johns, Resource Interactive's executive director of strategy.
"If men are out to research the best digital camera or the best shirt, they're not doing much else," he says.
"Women, however, might come in and say, 'I'm interested in a digital camera,' and the next thing you know, they're looking at clothes for their kids, they're thinking about what they're doing that weekend, and if they need to pick something up for their husbands."
But Johns stresses a critical point: Although women expand their mission, they don't abandon it. "Their list of 'things to do' grows. So what you need to know as a retailer is that they're going to be diverting from their primary mission, but they're adding to it, not abandoning it."
This means that e-tailers need to design site navigation to facilitate this. For example, a list of recently viewed items is highly important for women, less so for men, Johns says.
A site should also allow women shoppers to move easily between product and category. "Seamlessly doing that within your site makes it better for your brand. When you don't meet those needs, they leave your site and go to a competitor."
The Male-Female Product Page
Generally speaking, "women scan and men dig," Johns notes.
So the ideal product page offers something for each gender's online shopping approach. "The product page needs to allow depth of product information for men, while allowing women to scan that product information and easily move on."
"When we say men dig, what they're doing is very intense they're doing a lot of research, jumping to different sites, comparison shopping, reading reviews - they are out, really, on a focused mission," Johns says. "So we're not saying 'create a very complex experience.' Instead, easily allow them within that product page to serve up deeper product information." Including expert reviews is a good idea, he says. "That's what men want."
However, since very few sites offer enough of this comparative data, men "are going out to CNET, to Google, to shopping comparison sites, although still focused on their mission of finding their product information."
In contrast, women, "when they go to the product page, are like 'this is cool - - what else is there?' They're not so much concerned with all the details around it yet. They want to easily scan and see what else is available in a similar category. "So if they're looking at blouses, they want to be able to quickly scan what other blouses are out there."
"The most powerful metaphor that came out from women was 'window shopping' shopping online for them is just like window-shopping," Johns says. The firm's researchers saw women opening multiple browser windows to help simplify their need to scan. "Women were much more likely to want to see multiple things on one screen."
The Product Focus vs. the Lifestyle Focus
To reach both men and women, it's "really critical" for an online store to balance a product focus with a lifestyle focus, Johns says. In fact, it's more critical "than anything we observed."
A lifestyle focus generally uses soft visual cues, and it always puts products in context using a photo that groups several products in a life-like setting instead of a single product. A lifestyle focus often uses people in the photo. Traditionally, this approach is thought to be more attractive to women, whereas "men tend to go 'I don't know what's going on in this picture,'" Johns says.
"You flip that around, and you show a refrigerator on a white background, or you show a single shirt, and women instantly go, 'What's that for? What's the context?'"
However, the research revealed a surprising contradiction to these stereotypes.
Prior to starting its research, Resource Interactive hypothesized that there would be polarization between the genders: that women would be exclusively attracted by a lifestyle focus, where men would gravitate only toward a "nuts and bolts" product focus.
In reality, the research shows the genders have "significant overlap," Johns says. "What we found is that women are enticed by lifestyle, then product; men are enticed by product, then lifestyle."
"So there is a different entering point, but you can't deviate from [offering] both." It's necessary to balance these approaches. "You can go too far, and miss the product for men, and for women, if you go too far with lifestyle, they might leave because you're not getting them to the product fast enough."
Johns notes that many sites have a problem with this, using a product-only focus and hence losing a lifestyle-product balance. Office supply sites are notorious for being only product based, he says. "It's so product intensive that neither gender liked it," he says. "They give no lifestyle focus."
In other words, "Even for men, it's not just the product shot you do want to add something that creates context and novelty for men that's what hooks them."
The Male Online Shopper: Superman
The research found that men are moving from angst-ridden feelings in offline shopping to feelings of power online.
As one of its research techniques, Resource Interactive asked participants to bring them pictures cut out from magazines that represented how they felt about their shopping experiences. (It's a classic research technique to rely on pictures rather than verbal description, because many people have a hard time putting their feelings into words.)
Men, to describe the offline-shopping world, brought in pictures of congested highways, complete exhaustion and people sleeping on park benches. In sum, the core emotion for men in offline retailing is "angst ridden."
"Because they're so focused, they hated the parking lot, they hate waiting in check-out lines, not being able to get help the information to do all the digging and research isn't there."
One quote was, "I would rather have a root canal than go shopping."
The researchers then asked men for pictures that described their online shopping experience. In contrast, "You would have thought we weren't even talking to the same human beings," Johns says.
Men feel totally empowered online, he says. "They felt like it was a game they could play, it was game they would win." Man's inner shopper is awakened online. Online, they feel powerful because they're efficient, they can be informed, they know the real price, and they can better decide what they're going to spend.
Taking Action: The Male-Female Litmus Test
Resource Interactive has developed a multi-question "litmus test" to determine if an e-commerce site is set up to properly attract both men and women.
Some of these points have been mentioned above, like balancing product and lifestyle focus: for men, making sure you're offering plenty of product comparisons; and, for women, offering interesting digressions on your site, as well as allowing them easy and fast filtering of the widest assortment possible.
Other key points include:
1) Can your Web pages that display diverse products tell a single, uncomplicated tale?
Resource Interactive calls this "the logic of the montage." "We're not saying that it has to be one image on the page," explains Johns. But "If you have multiple images, there has to be a cohesive, thematic form."
He points to the homepage of Williams-Sonoma, which presents a series of thematically-linked photos. "Literally everybody, both genders, could tell the story it wasn't the same story, but they could all make up their own."
In short, a page's images "need to provide the opportunity for a cohesive story to be told."
A key exception to this rule: "Once you drill down to the product page, it's okay to get a little more product focused," he says. "You don't want to confuse someone who's been navigating through a site; you want to show them that item."
2) Did you employ gender-inflected scenarios when building your customers' discrete paths?
E-tailers should think of their customers in terms of personae, rather than merely demographics, Johns says.
"So instead of saying 'women age 25-35 in a household with two kids,' a persona would say 'a mom, who is employed outside of the home, juggles multiple tasks for her family' we would even give her a name and call her Beverly." Johns recommends visualizing this customer, even psychoanalyzing her, to allow your site to best cater to her. These personae can be created for men and for couples.
"We feel e-tailers have missed mapping out scenarios for their customers," he says.
An e-tailer can use these imagined personae to take a look at their own site's level of user friendliness toward various potential shoppers. For instance, " If a male comes in your landing page, where's he going to click, what's he looking for? What functionality [access to detail] is appealing to him, and how is it being served up on the page?"
Resource Interactive researchers used some sample male and female personae to explore how various Web sites were set up to handle them. "We saw barriers blatant points at which women couldn't continue down their discrete path. It was too cumbersome."
Johns notes that there's even one e-commerce software vendor, ATG eCommerce Solutions, that's building software to serve up Web pages based on scenario-based path interaction.
3) Is your shopping cart multi-purpose and persistent?
This is important for both genders, Johns notes. "A lot of retailers view the shopping cart solely as key to a transaction that's not how consumers are using it," he says.
"Consumers are using it as a shopping tool. They want to add stuff and have it still be there if they turn off their computers and come back later. They want it to be a way to short list rather than a final list. They want to be able to compare items once they're in there."
"Women, especially, want to be able to annotate," Johns says. "They want to be able to say, 'This item in my cart is for my son, and this item is for me.'"
"The whole constituency-driven mind set of women [keeping in mind who they're shopping for, not just what they're shopping for] is so prevalent in their disappointment with the cart."
For men, "The comparison thing within checkout is important, too." Men aren't as multi-constituent in their shopping habits, John notes.
A shopping cart that most effectively caters to both genders is "multi-purpose, and it allows people all this functionality" to annotate and to compare items - "within that [shopping cart] experience."
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