Move Over, Mars: Venus Holds The Purse Strings

If the 1960s belonged to the flower children, and the 1980s gave birth to the über-consuming yuppies, then it’s a safe bet that the 1990s’ historical legacy will belong to women. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, by the end of the ’90s, women in America had emerged as a financially high-powered demographic segment poised to give generously of their business skills and their money.

Though the article focused on women in philanthropy, this is good news for retailers. Taken as a whole, the economic clout of American women is greater than that of many countries, even prosperous ones. According to a 1999 study by the Federal Reserve Board, women already control more than half of the personal wealth in the United States. The movement of women into high-paying and executive positions has practically revolutionized the financial services industry, the automotive industry, and many other industries whose products and services were traditionally marketed to men.

“The women’s market is where the action is,” said P. Sue Perrotty, First Union National Bank’s general banking group executive for Pennsylvania and Delaware. Speaking at a recent gathering of the National Association of Women Business Owners, Perrotty offered these figures:

  • 42% of wealthy Americans with assets of more than $600,000 are women.

  • By 2019, women will control two-thirds of the country’s private wealth.

  • At present, women own 9.1 million businesses—38% of all businesses in the country. By next year, that percentage is projected to exceed 50%.

  • These businesses generate more than $3.6 trillion in sales.

  • Women are starting businesses at twice the rate men are and with a lower failure rate.

  • Women-owned businesses employ 24% of the country’s workers.

  • The number of women senior managers has increased 60% in the last decade.

  • Women now earn 55% of bachelor’s degrees, 54% of master’s degrees, 40% of doctoral degrees, 55% of accounting degrees, 40% of law degrees, and 36% of medical degrees.

  • In 1999, the No. 1 graduate of the Naval Academy was a woman, as were Nos. 2, 4, 6, and 9.

Purchasing power. Our own industry has these numbers to consider: According to a 1997 World Gold Council survey, 78% of women respondents said they had purchased a piece of jewelry (though not necessarily gold) within the previous 12 months. Forty percent of the women surveyed bought one piece of gold jewelry within the previous 12 months. Kitaru Inagaki, regional director of marketing for the World Gold Council, says women purchase 59% of gold jewelry in terms of volume and 45% in terms of value. The average price per piece was $116, and the average shopper bought 3.4 pieces in a 12-month period. Inagaki notes these figures include gem-set gold jewelry as well as plain gold. (Note: WGC’s 1999 survey was due to be released a week after this issue went to press. The updated figures will be reported in an upcoming issue of JCK.)

According to Brandee Dallow of the Diamond Information Center, the rate of female self-purchase of diamond jewelry increased by 41% from 1998 to 1999, and such sales now amount to $3.75 billion. Rings account for two of every five pieces of diamond jewelry purchased by women.

A 1998 study conducted by the Cultured Pearl Information Center found that women purchase 79% of all cultured pearl jewelry sold and influence 80% of all pearl gift purchases made by the men in their lives. The Platinum Guild International has no statistics separating platinum jewelry sales by gender but says its research indicates 12 million American women are planning to purchase platinum jewelry in the next year. Silver continues to be a female favorite, with women purchasing roughly 90% of all silver jewelry sold, according to the Silver Information Center.

Appealing to female shoppers. How can jewelers make sure they’re poised to capture these consumers? One way is to periodically re-examine how sales associates are approaching female customers. The psychological differences between men’s and women’s thought and behavior patterns have propelled books such as the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus series by John Gray to the top of best-seller lists. These differences are particularly evident in shopping behavior and in what each gender expects from the retail experience.

Marketing consultants and experts from such diverse companies as First Union, Mercedes-Benz, and Wyndham Hotels have identified some key gender differences that can turn a traditional selling approach into a self-defeating travesty. Some differences occur during conversation. For example, a woman often will nod to signify that she’s listening—not that she necessarily agrees with the speaker. When a man nods, it is frequently a sign of agreement. And when a woman says she wants to think about a purchase before deciding, she isn’t asking to be sold harder—as many sales trainers or motivational speakers suggest. She means she wants time to think about it. Finally, male shoppers typically expect the retail experience to be a simple transaction, whereas female shoppers expect a relationship.

Women are responsible for or involved in more than 80% of all household buying decisions, and in many cases, they’re also minding the store. More females are joining the ranks of high-level retail executives, according to a March report in the Dallas Morning News. The article cites Irving, Texas-based Zale, whose chief executive officer, chief administrative officer, chief financial officer, and two divisional presidents are women. Women also occupy key positions at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and J.C. Penney and various divisions of the Gap, Tandy Co., the Bombay Company, and Avon. In addition, they have important roles at many new dot-com e-tailers.

The article notes two key reasons for the dramatic increase in female retail executives: Baby Boom-era women who began their careers in management trainee programs have advanced and gained the kind of bottom-line, profit-and-loss experience that leads to top management positions; and women have more experience as customers than men.

“Women know what shopping environment we want. We’ve been the ones out there shopping for many, many years. We know how busy we’ve become and the shopping environment we need,” Gale Duff-Bloom, president of communications at J.C. Penney, told the Dallas Morning News. “You have to be a customer. You can’t just walk in a store and say: ‘It looks good. I don’t understand why it’s not doing better.’ ”