Follow the Money

Dating myself, I remember days long before the internet when all that small clothing retailers had to worry about was department store competition.  But in those teenage and college years, I was not yet tuned-in to the marketplace mechanics of distribution.  What I was tuned-in to was my mother’s viewpoint of retail discrimination against women.

store_mapBTW, I had an excellent mother who made her four children her full-time investment of her time and stretching thin resources, hoping for a return on her investment.  (Yes, I have this habit of putting things into business terms, but I know her motivations were rather more heartfelt.)  Being a mom and homemaker, we kids, if not in school, were in her tow going about town to get things the family needed, including clothes.

Shopping with my mother formed the basis of some of my earliest economic lessons.  Not always agreeing with her (or, as is often the case with the oldest child, often going out of my way to disagree with her) taught me to find evidence to support my theories, since she is smart and not easy to win a debate with.

I share this as a backdrop to an ongoing, growing chorus in many product categories about designing, manufacturing and retailing that caters to women as the acknowledged majority controller of all consumer retail dollars spent.  Among the earliest adopters of catering to women in the marketplace were the apparel and household goods categories.  Late adopters, often still accused of being male dominated, include things men traditionally spent more time with, like power tools, cars, etc.

So in those early years as I was flopping my tennis shoes on aisle floors rather loudly (just to annoy my mother and register my protest over a state of boredom), I remember often discussing retail with her, not so much for the intellectual exercise but to drive the boredom off by responding to her off-hand comments.  “This is nice!”  “That is ugly, what is this store thinking — who would ever buy it!”  “Where have they put X now??”  “It makes no sense that X is here while Y to go with it is on the other side of the store!”  (It did make sense though I did not pick-up on it at first — did you?)  And one of my favorites: “Why are women’s models always more expensive?!  Less material is used in my …” (jeans, shoes, shirt, whatever.)

I’ll discuss why in a moment.  It wasn’t what she thought.

If you are in an industry that is still struggling with shedding its male-dominated image to make shopping more comfortable and attractive to female customers, you need to be ready for the elementary grades of debate that always seem to be prerequisites before graduating high school on this topic and becoming truly proficient.

People often rush to judge the motivations of others in almost anything that dissatisfies them.  It’s human.  It’s also often a costly mistake.  Male-dominated product designs in products that have traditionally appealed more to men have tended to invest more in engineering.  Styling can be an after-thought where the product is then made to look “cool” (or “fast” or whatever.)  As women begin to take more interest in those product categories, it is easy to level the criticism at the brand of sexism or, at the minimum, thoughtlessness.  These brands must change their mindset and understand how product sales might grow by catering to women.  That necessarily means that product designs must change.  They can begin by hiring more women to help with design.

The next hurdle usually becomes the choice-that-isn’t-a-choice.  What I mean is that if there is a men’s model to do a certain thing, introduce a women’s model and then we’re done, right?  Yes, one.  Now, who is the mythical woman that represents what all women want for that one choice?  Of course, she doesn’t exist, and so most women are still unsatisfied.  Easy example: “Oh, how cute, they make this in PINK?” vs. “How offensive, why do men always think we want it to be PINK!”  Catch my drift?  Both of these consumers are women, and yet they both do not want the same thing.

Trying and failing, that product designer faces a dilemma that wasn’t so often faced with men.  It’s pretty easy to design for men as they tend to make product selection decisions independently but always want the “cool” looking thing similar to what all the other men have in the peer group.  Women, oppositely as with so many other things, rather enjoy shopping collectively but never want to buy the same thing that one of her peers already has.  In net effect, you can get away with one men’s model which is positively dreamy for manufacturing brand owners because they can efficiently make one thing and keep selling it.  But if you are going to make it for a woman, this doesn’t just add one SKU to your process, it requires adding a multiple of SKUs so that you can offer a range and array of style options that allow women to distinguish and define themselves.

So back to my mom.  What was she experiencing about retail economics but, at the time, she could not reconcile?  There is a reason for clothing departments that have 75% of the floor space devoted to women, including covering all the entrances, while relegating the men’s department to the interior reaches of the store with many fewer choices.  Men want to get in, get the pair of slacks in either black, brown or tan, and get out.  Women want an experience, enjoying the (maddening to men, but quite enjoyable to women) array of choices, and then go to the men’s department anyway to see if they like one of those models better, and then still do this in four more stores before making the “right” choice.

What does this mean for manufacturing brand owners and retailers?  It means a great deal more investment in space and inventory to make one sale to a woman that once cost a lot less to make to a man.

I’m sure my mother understands better today that if she wants more choices, and not just pink ones but ones that speak uniquely to her while allowing her peers to each have additional choices that speak to each of them, then the additional costs involved of more designs, more materials, more factory capacity, more store capacity, and more aged & obsolete inventory must be paid for in order to make all these choices possible.  Therefore, women’s models vs. the comparable men’s model may indeed be priced higher.  Is this price discrimination, as if some evil male accountant is breaking pencils with his evil little laugh, saying “because they’ll pay!’??  Not at all.  The price pressures on sellers to limit how much more they can charge and still make women’s goods profitable is extreme.  In many products, it is simply less work and more profitable to cater to the man.

But that isn’t how the family budget works today, and most all product sellers, in order to survive, must figure out how to cater to women.  They must offer choices that appeal both to the extra-feminine and the vaguely-feminine or even non-feminine (yet still “fits right”).  They must expand inventory and capacity.  They must get paid for this somehow or they cannot do it at all.  So, either some women’s goods that are not unisex are going to cost more to bring them to market, their choices are going to be limited to being not much broader than men’s (actually being unisex), or we will need to accept the new sexism, against males, making them pay more for their models to subsidize the cost of making more choices for women.  No strategy is an easy choice.  (This isn’t as easy as TP and paper towels with flower imprints as the only option — men will color-blindly just wipe something with it and throw it away.)

Businessmen: we cannot just “shrink it and pink it”.  We need to learn to offer more selection with all the associated costs of doing so, seeking ways to do this efficiently.  Businesswomen (and female consumers): realize that your sense of style does not speak for the rest of your gender, thus how difficult and expensive it is to cater to all women.  To get the luxury of more options, you may need to pay more while being patient while certain industries struggle with figuring out how to hit your tastes.

Businesseverybody: let’s not so quickly rush to judgment when something you want to sell or buy isn’t satisfying to you or someone else.  It just wastes time and resources to accuse people of being against us.  Instead, invite people to discuss solutions and work to offer some, being flexible to allow each stakeholder the space and time to figure it out.

Then, put that old Rolling Stones song back in the player and turn it up sometimes as a healthy reminder.  If you know the song to which I am referring, then you have dated yourself, like me.

Jeff Koenig

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