The Internet Gender Gap
Ladies, ever gone into a supermarket with a man to get a couple of fast
items and ended up standing by while he examined every item in the grocery
store in minute detail before making a purchase? Gentleman, ever been
stuck outside a women's changing room while she came out on 27 separate
occasions, displaying a black skirt for your comments and opinions, and
noticed the skirt was almost exactly the same as its 26 predecessors? The
battle of the sexes in the marketplace began shortly after the dawn of
humankind and hasn't abated yet. The good news, or the bad, depending on
your perspective, is that gender-based differences in shopping don't seem
to be dented in the slightest by the e-commerce revolution.
In the days of yore of Web surfing and shopping (you knowthree or
four years ago), the bulk of Internet surfers and shoppers came out of the
same mold: young, upscale, tech-oriented males. Right now, women and older
shoppers are making strides in Internet use. Female e-shoppers, in
particular, are pulling even with male shoppers, which has most electronic
consumer marketers delighted. Recent statistics show that among both
experienced and new Internet users, nearly half are women, and the number
is growing. A recent Forrester
Research study reported that the average annual growth rate of
Internet usage for men is estimated at 13 percent, while the growth rate
for women is projected at 19 percent. Recent Nielsen
Media Research indicates that during 1999, online shopping by women
increased 80 percent.
Anyone familiar with the demographics of consumer purchasing knows that
women tend to be entirely or mostly responsible for most purchasing
decisions made in the U.S. In the offline marketplace, clothing, household
goods, furnishings, health products, groceries, children's clothing, and
toys statistically tend to be bought almost exclusively by women.
Companies trying in the early days to sell beauty products, Beanie Babies,
and furniture online were probably not thrilled with their prospects of
selling to the only potential audience, a group of twenty-something techie
bachelors. Today, marketers are positioning their companies and goods to
target women more often, which seems to be effective in some arenas and
just plain silly in others. (Two sites target online financial services
for women -- I can't imagine how these financial services would differ
from those offered to men, but there you have it.) New sites selling
cosmetics and skin and hair care products, clothing, food products, and
books (women tend to buy more books online than men) seem to pop up every
day. But the important distinction to keep in mind is that though there
are as many women as men shopping on the Internet, they do it in different
I apologize if I offend anyone with my next observations, but I'm going
to make some generalizations about gender differences.
Men do more research before they buy.
Though women go online as often, men spend more time online. Men, on
average, do more research and visit more competitive sites before they
buy. Women are more likely to buy off a site the first time they visit it,
which seems to imply that men enjoy the process of Web surfing more than
women, who approach the Web in a more practical, time-conservative manner.
Women are more concerned about e-commerce security.
eBrain, the market research division
of the Consumer Electronics Association, recently conducted a study that
indicated female online shoppers are more concerned about the security of
e-commerce transactions than their male counterparts. As the oft-cited
statistic that two-thirds of shopping carts are abandoned before purchase
can partly be attributed to concerns about security, this is an issue many
sites will have to overcome, using implementation and visible posting of
good security and encoding techniques.
Women don't like to buy things they can't touch and see first.
It's not a problem with the most popular items bought over the Internet:
books, CDs, computer hardware, and software. One product is much like
another. But in terms of clothing and toys, women more than men seem to
prefer to use the old-fashioned marketplace principle first: examine
before you buy.
Men and women use the Internet to buy different things.
A recent Ernst & Young survey offered
a list of the favorite sites for both men and women for making purchases.
The top three in both cases were the same: Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com,
and CDNow.com, in that order. After those three, the two lists depart. The
fourth most popular site for women was Etoys.com, which fell to position
nine on the men's list. Among the top ten for men, Office Max, Office
Depot, and Egghead.com appeared -- three sites that did not make it onto
the women's list. The women's favorite site list rounded out with
Drugstore.com, JCPenney.com, Disney.com, and BlueMountainArt.com (which
allows a user to send online greeting cards.) The Ernst & Young study
also indicated that men were more likely to buy services online, such as
airline tickets or hotel reservations.
Women appreciate real-time help more than men.
It seems that click-to-talk buttons, collaborative browsing, and live chat
with a customer service rep might have been directly created to entice
female shoppers. Whereas men seem to prefer the "hunt" for a
product (gathering information, visiting multiple Web sites, and
comparison shopping), women seem more likely to want to speak or chat with
an agent and know that should there be something wrong with a purchased
item, live help is available to solve the problem.
Women shop from home more than men.
The Nielsen survey indicated that the average woman surfs and shops from
home, while the average man does his browsing and buying at work.
The bottom line is as more information becomes available on the
differing wants and needs, habits and preferences of men and women who buy
off the Web, e-marketers will become more savvy in targeting their desired
audiences. While the male/female ratios of Internet users may be evening
out, e-tailers still have a long way to go in reaching other audiences,
namely lower income-level groups and older consumers, who still are
disproportionately offline. As more controversy and regulation arise in
the targeting of products to children (people under 18 use the Internet as
much as, or more than, any other group), marketers will have to look to
other demographic groups.
So how to begin? Understanding what men and women want in an e-commerce
experience is a good start. You'll still have to balance the decision of whether
a click-to-talk button on your site is too much like asking male shoppers to
stop and ask for directions on a car trip, and if offering a "does this make my butt
look big?" tool on your company's clothing Web site would appeal to or
offend women shoppers.
Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at email@example.com.