I’m not much of a shopper but I’ve seen women who make it a highly evolved sport. I’ve also struggled to understand how some women can spend enormous amounts of time and money—sometimes money they don’t have—buying things for themselves and others. Yet, I must confess that I’ve indulged in some retail therapy myself now and then and enjoyed it immensely. And yes, I too have spent money in the past I didn’t have. So what is it about shopping? Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a look at why we shop and begin to understand the motivation behind it so that we can become more conscious, SMART and responsible consumers.
Did you know dozens of research studies exist that attempt to anticipate and monitor our consumer buying habits? Major manufacturers and retailers spend huge amounts of money to search out why and when we buy what we buy, so they can use it to their benefit. Of course some of them say they want to enhance our shopping experience and “serve us” in the process. But when retailers know our motivations better than we often know it ourselves, they can use it to influence our decisions without our knowledge. I personally like to know when I’m being manipulated.
One of the most interesting studies is how women and men differ in buying habits. As most women know, men typically do not like to shop nearly as much as we do. There are actually two arguments for this. According to research done in 2009 by Daniel Kruger from the University of Michigan, our shopping differences likely evolved from our prehistoric hunter-gatherer/foraging days. Kruger says, “Within ancestral environments, it is likely that men were predominantly the hunters and women were predominantly the gatherers.” For thousands of years women traditionally spent entire days going out into the surrounding environment to find and select the highest quality food and resources available. When possible, women did it in groups with children tagging along. Meanwhile, men would head out for a hunt, frequently alone, and bag the biggest piece of meat they could find, and drag it home.
In some ways these same tendencies are still a part of many people’s current shopping experience. If women have the time, they will head out into the environment to browse and shop for the best items to feed and serve her and her family in all ways. Going from store to store to find one thing or another, or to find the best bargain possible is normal, reinforcing the idea that she has the instincts of a gatherer. Noting what store carries what item for future reference is all part of the selection process. And seasonal sales even mimic past eras when the “seasons” determined what products would be available at what time of year.
Meanwhile men tend to shop in a way I’ll call mono-focused. When Thom (my husband) wants to buy something, he hunts it down (the closer the better,) bags it, and drags it home as quickly and efficiently as possible. Guessing whether it is a seasonal product or soon to be on sale has little relevance. Another way of explaining these behaviors is by describing men’s buying habits as “conquering stuff,” and women’s shopping as “finding stuff.” Steve Tyler, PhD from Leeds Metropolitan University further reinforces these differences by saying, “ A survey of 2,000 British people conducted in 2013 found that men become bored after only 26 minutes of shopping, while it took women a full two hours.”
Also studied are the differences between men and women’s shopping habits as related to women as caregivers. Typically women are primary caregivers in the majority of households around the world. As author Bridget Brennan says, “In this primary care giving role, women find themselves buying on behalf of everyone else in their lives.” According to Wall Street Journal, women account for 78% of U.S. consumer spending—while other organizations saying the percentage is closer to 85. Another statistics say that women make 80% of all healthcare decisions for the family. When you consider that women wield such spending capital and are usually the “gateway” to everyone else in a family, finding a way to control the buying habits of the female consumer is of primary concern to retailers.
For example, retailers know that women often evaluate every purchase by how it will effect others they care about. They are highly influenced by reviews and recommendations. Considering those “unseen influences” is an important strategy. Research also shows that in most cases women react more strongly (either positively or negatively) to personal interactions with sales personnel.
Men on the other hand are mainly concerned with utility—does the store carry what they want, have good parking and then how long will it take to check out? A study called, Men Buy, Women Shop done by Wharton Business School says, women consider, “lack of help when needed” as a top problem (29%). It is also the likeliest reason that stores lose the business of women shoppers. Indeed, according to an analysis of the study’s data, about 6% of all female shoppers could be lost to stores due to lack of sales help. Men, however, ranked “difficulty in finding parking close to the store’s entrance” as their number one problem (also 29%). These facts are just a tiny tip of the information retailers are amassing on our spending habits.
But there is one final theory regarding women and shopping that caught my attention. According to Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D. author of Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted, women’s current urge to shop, “began historically, as an offshoot of advertising and commercialism, as a way to encourage women to feel in charge—deceptively inviting them to make choices and decisions of their own.” Although Young-Eisndrath acknowledges the hunter vs. gatherer ideas being tossed around by socio-biologists, she feels that women were actually “seduced by a liberation movement they didn’t design” beginning in the late Victorian era.
Young-Esendrath raises some interesting points. Acknowledging that women of the time, (even women of money) had little power outside the home, shopping began to be advertised as a way for women to “make their own choices.” Not only were they being asked what they “wanted” but they were also being treated in a special way by large department stores of the time that offered them tea and refreshments while reviewing their selections. For perhaps the first time in their lives, ordinary women were exposed to an exclusive world where they were catered to and made to feel empowered. Gradually, rather than shopping for necessities once or twice a year as had been the custom, stores and businesses began pushing to make shopping an every day experience where women could act upon their own desires. Who can argue with the lure of “controlling our own destiny” and “getting what we really want?” Don’t believe those tactics are still in use? Have you watched a television ad lately selling cosmetics, clothing or shoes?
Which of the above theories or research is most correct? Who really knows? All three are likely part of the complicated package of what motivates women to shop and/or eventually buy things. What I do know is that the more I dug into the research and ideas behind why we shop, the more I realized I was only touching the surface of this complicated issue. That’s why in Part 2 (next week) I plan to explore more of what I’ve uncovered as well as how this information can be used against us if we don’t stay awake, aware and SMART about why women shop.
Photo Credit: Kanaka Menehune on Flickr Creative Commons