October 31, 2005, 12:00 AM

Gender Matters

Resource Interactive researches how her clicks differ from his clicks.

Are men from Mars and women from Venus in cyberspace? In other words, does gender ­matter online? If it does, and there are hard-wired behavioral differences between the sexes that persist not only across channels but across the ages, why, then, does the Internet feel more Victor/Victoria than vive la différence?

The truth is, despite the ­channel`s much-touted potential for niche and one-to-one ­marketing, retailers online are missing the simplest audience segmentation--along the she-clicks, he-clicks axis. They haven`t delved into the online gender divide beyond basic tracking of product preferences and some conventional wisdom tied to the Internet`s early male technophile-dominated years. For instance, a Paco Underhill ­assertion from 2000, that women seek with single-mindedness and then promptly exit the Internet while men surf in open-ended fashion, is untrue today. Women`s and men`s online behavior now closely mirrors their offline shopping preferences, with a few notable exceptions, according to The Gender Agenda, an ­investigation of gender on the Internet that Resource Interactive presented at the 2005 Shop.org Summit in September.

Busting preconceived notions

The Gender Agenda study spanned four months and two markets (Columbus, Ohio, and San Francisco), tracked 326,000 purchases over four quarters, and involved 250 hours of one-on-one engagement with participants. We developed three qualitative research methods for the study as a way to fill gaps in the existing array of interactive research or to improve on generally accepted practices such as usability. Partnering with Resource Interactive was ­comScore Networks Inc., a consumer ­behavior consultancy, whose Global Consumer Panel tracks behaviors and attitudes through both self-reporting and passive observation. ComScore gathered data from 150,000 online households and conducted a custom survey of over 1,000 online participants.

The Gender Agenda largely focuses on four product ­categories--Flowers & Gifts, Apparel, Home Improvement, and Consumer Electronics. We chose them for their dual- or shifting-gender audiences, believing that they would provide the most insight into bi-gendered marketing.

In spite of preconceived notions of who was shopping in these categories, quantitative findings confirmed their importance in the battle for both sexes. For instance, in the historically male-oriented category of Home Improvement (including appliances), where courting of the female shopper offline has paid off in recent years, 54% of online shoppers are women and they spend on average $177 as compared to $165 for men. In addition, in the still male-oriented category of Consumer Electronics, 54% of online shoppers are women, although women spend only $186 per buyer versus $257 for men.

Undoing the myths

Given these gender trends in ­audience makeup and spend, and the attendant opportunities to market to both genders more effectively, the current lack of gender savvy online is likely tied to retailers` lack of understanding of the behavioral and attitudinal factors influencing the numbers. Several myths prevail, for instance, about the genders` respective aesthetic preferences online.

Resource Interactive`s aesthetic appeal methodology, @aGlance, disproved assumptions about men`s preferences for dense pages of tech specs--even in Consumer Electronics, where they make the largest purchases--and women`s alleged preferences for lifestyle-oriented web pages devoid of clear product offers.

Of 18 top-ranking web sites whose brand logos were concealed to minimize bias, WilliamsSonoma.com emerged as the favorite of both genders because of a balance between product and lifestyle focus, and, just as important, the single-­narrative potential of diverse images on a web page. In other words, if a retailer must represent several diverse ­products on the home page, their disparity ceases to be an aesthetic drawback or distraction if product images can subtly be woven together as a story; if, for instance, the lawnmower, deck chairs, and bug spray can be perceived (with some help from the retailer) as a montage of outdoor living. Resource Interactive`s @aGlance showed that if the retailer doesn`t provide the narrative or theme, the user will.

We employed Resource Interactive`s Meta4Sight research methodology to probe the largely unconscious drivers of shopping. Three-week collages and journals, and intensive interviews resulted in cognitive maps that showed men`s primary emotional state shifting dramatically from angst-ridden in the offline shopping world to feelings of power online. Women shifted from chiefly feeling entertained offline, where they viewed shopping as an important social ­ritual and sensual journey of ­discovery, to feeling empowered online. They felt self-paced, more focused on self-discovery, more uncompromising in their expectations of service and knowledge acquisition, and gratified by retailers who anticipate their wants and needs. This finding was the first of five key insights that combine quantitative and qualitative data.

1. Women feel empowered; men feel powerful

During the Meta4Sight research, men cut and pasted images of ­runners crossing the finish line to represent their feelings about ­shopping online. They talked of deals being sought and definitively won, of possessing the advantage of competitive information, of feeling like prey offline but the predator online.

Women relayed their feelings of empowerment; not the conquest of an invisible foe, as with men, but the conquering of time, tasks and personal limitations.

Several quantitative findings support this gender difference. For instance, while the majority of online Consumer Electronics buyers are women, who use the Internet to overcome anxiety and gain expertise in the once-male bastion, men still spend 38% more per buyer, and ­generally on higher-ticket items, which they research more than women (39% vs. 31%).

In Apparel & Accessories, where women comprise 67% of online buyers, men`s and women`s spending per buyer is comparable: over the four quarters ending March 2005, men spent $117 to women`s $128, evidence that shopping online makes even apparel and accessories more enticing to men. (Many male participants specifically singled out the dressing room as one of the great indignities of offline shopping.)

2. Men`s inner shopper is awakened; women`s inner shopper is enriched

Who knew men had an inner shopper? Men represented 42% of online spend and 47% of online buyers over the four quarters ending March 2005. While most ­studies predict a decrease in purchase power and in numbers relative to women, they predict an increase relative to men`s offline shopping. Resource Interactive`s Replay Usability ­sessions demonstrated that men enjoy the power that comes from product comparisons and the efficiency and novelty-­seeking ease of the Internet. According to comScore`s Behavioral Panel, men are much more likely than women (64% vs 45%) to research online and to browse in order to discover what`s new (50% vs. 31%).

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