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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, [email protected] CENTER CRM Solutions

[April 20, 2000]

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 ways.

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 troth@tmcnet.com.

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