Thursday, April 03, 2008

Still shopping in the Paleolithic age

So a new study from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania suggests what we all think we know: men and women are different kinds of shoppers. The study claims men shop with a purpose (hunting?) while women treat shopping as a total experience (gathering?). Not surprising really, especially when you consider that women do the vast majority of shopping for themselves, their family members, their friends and relatives, and the household itself. Of course women say they spend more time and thought in stores – they have to!

This kind of study makes me put on my Certified Gender Research Scientist hat and squint hard: on the surface, what you see is what you get. But look a little deeper and the gender knot unravels. What do we know in the world of gender studies that market researchers and MBAs do not?

Indeed, there’s always something that feels like truth in stereotypes. That's how they emerge in the first place, as a handful of superficial observations that eventually morph into a blanket over a whole group. I know plenty of men who zip into stores, get what they need, and get out. But then there are those other guys who take forever picking out a new jacket or a pair of running shoes. Heck, sometimes it’s the same guy – it just depends on what he’s shopping for. So, why does the stereotype exist – and why did the men interviewed about their shopping habits spew back what the researchers wanted to hear?

We’ve known since the 1970s that there are two kinds of gender effects in survey research. First, if the researchers are looking for differences between men and women, they will find them. It’s incredibly rare for gender research to turn up findings that oppose what the researcher set out to find (and this is not true for other kinds of research, so it’s something about our deep seated beliefs about the differences between men and women). Second, there's an effect that comes from this great concept called 'social desirability.' Here's one guy's version: "There's such cultural phobia about looking feminine, most men won't admit to liking shopping even if they do. Men are allowed to talk about buying cars, appliances, technology, and sports equipment. And maybe wine or beer." You want to appear manly? Then don't admit to non-manly behaviors -- especially in a co-ed focus group.

It’s too bad the "primitive psychology" angle was so attractive to the Wharton researchers (like others before them!). As any anthropologist will tell you, hunter-gatherer myths tend to play better in today’s ads than in the historical record. The Paleolithic analogy distracts from the truly interesting findings about sales staff: both men and women cared a lot about individualized service and problem solving by store clerks. Thus the study’s most interesting conclusion was ultimately its least surprising one as well:

"Retailers need to step up and deliver more sophisticated, segmented service… There's no such thing as customer homogeneity. We're not a homogeneous bunch at all. Yet as organizations, we end up treating customers as one big happy family. You've got all sorts of demographic and psychographic forces at play."
Even while concluding that consumption is deeply segmented, the authors still focused on gender differences as an easy approach to "solving" the segmentation conundrum. Unfortunately the slight differences noted by the researchers could tempt overzealous retailers into using sexist psychological sales tactics (wittingly or not). But imagine what could happen if these arguments started showing up as guidelines in corporate sales training manuals…

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