Oct 29, 2006
What Do Women Want? Just Ask
Ken McCurdy for Shane Homes
A focus group joined Shane Wenzel, third from right, of Shane Homes; Joanne Thomas Yaccato, a consultant; and Cal Wenzel, right, the company’s chief executive, at a home in Calgary, Alberta. The group’s suggestions were used in the home’s design.
FOR most of the 27 years it has been in business in Canada, Shane Homes has staked its claim as one of the country’s leading regional homebuilders the old-fashioned way: it devised and executed cookie-cutter designs for new houses just as fast as the orders came in. As the economy of its home base, Calgary, Alberta, soared on the back of oil and gas riches, it could have continued minting money by sticking with that tried-and-true approach. But two years ago, smack in the middle of a housing boom and heightened competition, Shane Homes dumped its old ways and adopted a new blueprint.
The overhaul began at a real estate conference in 2003, when Shane Wenzel, the builder’s namesake and its head of sales and marketing, heard a speech about the tremendous buying power of women. That moment, Mr. Wenzel recalled, was an “epiphany.” He set up small “listening groups” of women to tap into the needs of people who actually lived in his company’s homes. What Mr. Wenzel heard wasn’t pretty. “The ladies never held back once,” he said. “They were brutally honest.”
The kitchens in the company’s homes, the women said, were all wrong. The pantries were tiny, and the sinks needed to overlook a window so kids in the backyard could be monitored. And the mudrooms! They shared space with laundry rooms, meaning that dirty floors might sit right beneath clean laundry. (“It’s called a mud/laundry room?” one incredulous woman asked.) After that, Shane Homes subjected designs to similar grillings — before they were built — and adapted them accordingly.
“Shane Homes had the revolutionary idea of asking women what they wanted in a home,” said Joanne Thomas Yaccato, a Toronto consultant and author who advised the company on female consumers. “The revolutionary part is that they not only listened, they actually built the darn thing.”
Shane Homes is hardly alone. More companies, in the United States and elsewhere, have realized that they overlook women at their own financial peril. The companies are realigning their marketing and design practices, learning to court an increasingly female-centric consumer base that boasts more financial muscle and purchasing independence than ever before.
“We are perhaps on the first step to a matriarchal society; women will earn more money than men if current trends continue by 2028,” said Michael J. Silverstein of the Boston Consulting Group. “The trend has been escalating in the last 10 years as there has been a gradual, slow erosion of the power balance in the family, a psychic rebalancing.”
Women, Mr. Silverstein added, are “controlling purchases and driving a shift in our economy.”
Retailers like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears, Best Buy and others recognize that women are running their households like purchasing managers. Some are “identifying stores that have more female shoppers and offering additional services,” including sales support, customized signs and special product displays, said Dana L. Telsey, who runs her own independent research firm. Travel companies, automakers, and other companies, meanwhile, have had to cater to the tastes of women who have careers outside the home and are pursuing hobbies and other pricey interests. The phenomenon is readily apparent on the Internet, where Web sites built around the needs and interests of such groups as female homeowners and car buyers have gained steady traction.
Much of that shift has to do with education and pay. At American colleges and universities, women represent 57 percent of undergraduate classes and 58 percent of graduate classes, according to the American Council on Education. (They also hold a slight majority in the overall population.) And education, in turn, has helped to bolster salaries and income. In 2005, government data show, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $585, or 81 percent of the $722 median for their male counterparts, up from about 63 percent in 1979.
“Women are making 70 percent of travel decisions, for the family, for their own getaways or for people at work,” said Niki Leondakis, the chief operating officer of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants in San Francisco. “It’s surprising that more people are not including women in their marketing.”
But some big retailers say they are, in fact, well aware of where purchasing power resides.
Best Buy, for example, “used to be a boy store, built by boys, for boys, but four to five years ago, there was a dramatic flip,” said Julie Gilbert, a vice president with the company. That change, she said, occurred with the rise of must-have products like digital cameras, MP3 players, cellphones and other mobile devices, and products like flat-screen televisions that have became fashionable accessories for the home.
“Women are outspending men in our industry $55 billion to $41 billion,” Ms. Gilbert said. “Not only that, they are actually influencing 90 percent of the purchases. It is a new day in consumer electronics.”
THE same may be true in financial services. MassMutual, which recently introduced “Pearls of Wisdom,” a video-based financial seminar, and added a women’s page to its Web site, has taken the approach a step further. In August, it started a “Selling to Women” educational series to help its agents understand women’s expectations and needs. “When it comes to financial advisers, women will share the most intimate details of their lives,” said Susan W. Sweetser, second vice president of the women’s markets department at MassMutual. “Women don’t just buy based on information; they buy based on emotions, coupled with the facts.”
Health care was the first industry to recognize and adapt to female buyers because it was clear that women were the gatekeepers for most families’ health needs, according to Marti Barletta, president of the TrendSight Group, a research firm in Winnetka, Ill. Financial services was next, followed by home improvement and consumer electronics, she said, as marketers followed the money trail.
While women have always influenced decisions about big-ticket household purchases, their direct spending has expanded substantially in recent years.
Women accounted for 33 percent of the purchases at big-box retailers in 2005, up from 28 percent in 2003, according to the NPD Group, a consumer research firm. “That’s a huge shift,” said Mark J. Delaney, an NPD analyst, “not to be taken lightly.” To be sure, some companies have been examining the needs and interests of female consumers for years. The advertising agency Leo Burnett USA and its LeoShe division created its Girlfriend Groups research services in the 1990s to help clients understand how customers approach brands.
In its current form, Girlfriend Groups finds a volunteer who invites some friends to her house. Once there, they meet researchers who ask them questions about brands and products. “We needed to go deep,” said Denise Fedewa, executive vice president of Leo Burnett USA in Chicago. “We wanted to really peel back their guard and tell us what was going on.”
Ms. Fedewa said the research produced unusually honest and forthcoming results. In a more formal focus group held in a controlled setting, women might say, for example, that they kept only healthy foods in the cupboard for after-school snacks. But in Girlfriend Groups’ research, conducted at a woman’s house, friends would never let a woman get away with fibbing about what’s in the cupboard, Ms. Fedewa said.
Market researchers are now embracing women as much more than domestic divas. They recognize them as buyers with their own careers and fattened pocketbooks, who are finding plenty to do and plenty to buy outside the home. Over the last several years, a cottage industry of consultants and authors, all offering advice and analysis, has sprung up around the pervasiveness of women in the marketplace. A few years ago, Ms. Barletta said, she counted just three competitors; now she estimates that 15 to 20 consultants work in her field.
ON a recent Friday evening, Danisha Krause and three friends checked into the Hotel Palomar in Washington for a “Glam Girls” promotion held by Kimpton. The women are part of a larger group of mostly single women, aged 32 to 40, many of whom graduated from Virginia Tech and meet once a month for group suppers. They have traveled to places like Las Vegas and New York, but on this night the group of four decided to stay closer to home.
For about $300 each, they booked a suite with two adjoining bedrooms and converted it into a party pad. When they arrived, the hotel gave them gift bags containing OPI nail polish that they swapped among themselves, based on their color preferences. They dined in the hotel’s restaurant and then returned to their suite for a private Texas Hold ’Em lesson from a poker expert, while the hotel sent up a steady flow of cocktails and snacks.
“We really had a good time,” Ms. Krause said. “We played a round of blackjack, and craps, too.”
The Glam Girls package is part of the company’s Women in Touch program, the brainchild of Ms. Leondakis. The program, now two years old, offers special promotions and amenities to female guests. “I’m on the road so much,” Ms. Leondakis said. “I generally found that hotels didn’t cater to the specific needs of women travelers.”
She says that some hotels overlook female guests by not emphasizing their personal security — or by offering an abundance of poorly designed rooms. For example, what 5-foot-4 woman has not had to jump up to see herself in hotel mirrors that do not provide full-length views? And why, in so many bathrooms, can makeup supplies fall so easily into the toilet?
Kimpton says 48 percent of its guests are women — compared with a lodging industry norm of 42 percent — and it addresses their needs with rooms that offer more lighting and closet space, better mirrors, bathroom shelves, hand-held steamers and items like razors and toothpaste. There are also in-room wellness programs featuring yoga, Pilates and meditation. And don’t forget in-room safes. “We like to travel with jewelry and we don’t want to wait in line at the front desk,” Ms. Leondakis said.
Other companies are tapping into this same rich vein. Melody Biringer, founded Crave Party in Seattle in 2000 with the idea of events that weave together shopping, bonding and professional networking. Each party has a theme; the women pay a small fee and gather in one location where there is food, shopping and services like manicures and massages. The company’s motto is “Everything you crave, under one roof.”
Ms. Biringer said she started Crave Party because her life as a married entrepreneur prevented her from seeing her best friend more than twice a year.
“I decided that was not acceptable,” Ms. Biringer said. “Life gets in the way. I craved her, and hence the name. I decided I needed to start a business to get women together.”
Crave is now licensed in 13 cities; Ms. Biringer sponsors six parties a year in Seattle. Early on, she said, the parties were aimed at younger women, but after their first visit, the women would return with their mothers. So the groups now attract women 30 to 50 years old.
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Biringer offered a “Girls at Play” party at the Fisher Pavilion-Seattle Center. For $25 each, about 200 participants dined on Mexican salads, shopped and enjoyed activities like yoga, Pilates and dance boot-camp classes; makeup tips; and an active-wear show. They left with a gift bag of goodies.
Ms. Biringer also arranges travel shopping trips for small groups of women to places like Los Angeles and New York. “Some of us end up in Prada, some of us in Century 21, but we always have a blast and, yes, ring up the purchases,” said Barbara Travers, who also attended a Crave Party in Seattle in August. “I’m usually the one dragging us into four-star restaurants and wine shops; they’re usually dragging me into Henri Bendel and Saks.”
Group events like these are tailored to women’s interests, Ms. Biringer said. “We need to get away from it all and be with our trusted friends,” she said. “Despite what people think, we don’t really pamper ourselves that much. When we do, we’re really happy, and men appreciate that.”
Men might also appreciate that more women are handy around the house. Just ask Heidi Baker and Eden Jarrin, the Janes of BeJane.com, the online community they formed in 2003 with another entrepreneur, Phil Breman, and have aimed at women who are do-it-yourselfers. Ms. Baker, who is called the “chief Jane officer,” and Ms. Jarrin, the chief executive, taught themselves how to do home improvement projects, and they share the knowledge on their Web site.
Both women also bought their own homes before they married their husbands. That makes them representatives of another trend: single women are the fastest-growing segment of home buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors, purchasing 21 percent of homes, compared with just 9 percent for single men.
According to Be Jane more women are undertaking home improvement projects on their own. “We’ve seen a huge shift in everything: jobs, wages, home-buying,” Ms. Baker said. Do-it-yourself home improvement, she said, “is one of the last realms.”
Even so, Ms. Baker says stereotypes persist in the marketplace. In a blog posting in September with the heading, “Sorry Sweetie, You Need to Hire Someone,” Ms. Baker related the following encounter at a home improvement store:
“I walked into the lighting section and asked a guy to where I could find the dimmers. Once he takes me there, he turns and makes some comment about how I need to make sure to check with the electrician who’s going to install it. My response was that I would be putting it in myself. As if I hadn’t even said a thing, he tells me, ‘Oh honey, you really do need to hire someone to do this for you so you don’t burn the house down.’ ”
The two “Janes” shrug off such experiences. “We are building a lifestyle so women can learn how to feel confident in the home,” Ms. Jarrin said.
Data suggests that women are feeling quite confident. According to the NPD Group, women bought 47 percent of all painting supplies sold in the United States in June, up from 42 percent in 2003. And they buy about half of all new bathtubs, up from 35 percent.
WHAT BeJane.com is to home improvement, AskPatty.com hopes to be for women and cars. While there are just two Janes, a whole panel of expert automotive women are behind AskPatty, which gives women a blog and a Web site to post questions about all aspects of automobile transactions and maintenance.
The site, which has no advertising, is rolling out an AskPatty Certified Dealership Program. Dealers that complete it are deemed to be female friendly and are searchable by ZIP code. The company has given its seal of approval to 25 dealerships and says that hundreds more have inquired about joining the list.
Just who is Patty?
“Patty is a mom, daughter, wife, niece, grandmother and auntie,” the site explains in part. “Patty is young, old, married, single, an experienced driver, a new driver, a racecar driver, a hot rod driver, a classic car driver, a minivan driver, a truck driver, a luxury car driver, an S.U.V. driver, a disabled driver, a carpool driver.”
Jody DeVere, president of AskPatty, which was formed last summer, notes that women buy more than 50 percent of the new cars and trucks sold in the United States. In 2005, based on data from National Automobile Dealers Association, that amounted to about $200 billion spent on about eight million new vehicles. Although women also bought about half of new cars and trucks a decade ago, Ms. DeVere said, their approach to those decisions has changed.
“The main difference is that women are beginning to understand their purchasing power,” she said. “They are now beginning to demand better treatment and have gotten their voice.” While there are some other valuable auto-buying sites for women, like Edmunds.com/women, Ms. DeVere said, AskPatty is different in that “it is from women by women, but more than that, AskPatty is heartfelt. It’s not just words and information.”
After spending hours on the Internet researching a new car over several months, Beverly McMullen of Upland, Calif., hit upon the AskPatty site. She has a physical disability and needed specific auto modifications.
She visited the site before and after her family bought a 2006 Saturn Vue. Ms. DeVere responded personally to her questions, passing along useful information. Ms. McMullen said she was hesitant about asking for help, but was glad that she did.
“It seemed like I had a task force supporting me,” she said in an e-mail exchange. “AskPatty really jump-started what had seemed like a dead end for me.”
The Internet is also a resource for women taking charge of their own finances. It was only a few decades ago that women — who now buy a big share of products like tires, power tools, lawn mowers, computers, consumer electronics and, of course, homes — could not get a bank loan without a male co-signer, regardless of whether they had their own income.
These days, some women are literally opening their checkbooks to the world on blogs like MyOpenWallet and BostonGal’sOpenWallet, which is run by a woman who identifies herself online only as Jane Dough, to protect her privacy (www.bostongalsopenwallet.blogspot.com). The blog tracks her personal assets monthly (valued at $412,435.59 in October) and calls itself “the ongoing chronicle of a single 30-something Bostonian who is seeking enlightenment and control of her net worth.”
In a telephone interview, she explained that she started blogging a year ago, after she bought a house and paid off her student loans and credit cards. “I started to feel adrift,” she said. “What do I do next? How do I keep motivated?” The blog was her answer.
In her first post, she said: “Speaking publicly about your personal finances has always been a no-no in my family. The result of this is that I often felt unprepared and uneducated about financial matters. I am now in my mid-30’s, single, with a fairly well established professional career. Because I live alone, I make all the financial decisions in my life — good or bad.
“If your parents and peers can’t or won’t show you the way, hopefully sites like this on the Web will.”
For its part, Best Buy is more than willing to show them the way. Online, Best Buy has added “click to call,” so that a shopper can ask a representative to call her back at a time she requests to help with buying decisions. In the stores, it has made the aisles cleaner and wider and added shopping bags as an alternative to carts.
BACK in Calgary, Shane Homes plans to start a new listening group in November, and to keep it going until next summer. Mr. Wenzel, who is 34, says Ms. Yaccato’s advice and book — “The 80 Percent Minority: Reaching the Real World of Women Consumers,” which stipulates that women control 80 percent of every consumer dollar spent — inspired him to create the listening groups.
Shane Homes, whose revenue doubled in six years, to more than 180 million Canadian dollars in fiscal 2005-06, also went beyond listening. It asked women in the groups to design two homes, both named after Ms. Yaccato. Those and other suggestions were incorporated into the design of a house called the Yaccato 2, which went on to win a design award in Alberta.
Shane Homes sold nine Yaccato 2’s in 2005 and has sold five so far this year. Many of the its features have also been incorporated into the designs of the company’s other model homes.
Mr. Wenzel says that Shane Homes now takes about five times longer to design a home than it did just a few years ago.
“It’s critiqued once, twice, three times,” he said. “It’s a longer process, but we end up with better designs.”