Electronics retailers woo women

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This holiday season, women may get a warmer, friendlier feeling when shopping for consumer electronics. Retailers like Best Buy, RadioShack and Office Depot have instituted changes in employees, store design and marketing to specifically court the newly noted female consumer.

Although women have long held veto power over household-electronics purchases, it's the advent of digital advances like photography and flat-screen TVs that have made women more interested in making purchases for themselves.

"There's been very little listening to women in the consumer-electronics category before now. They generally listen to 16-year-old boys and early adopters," said Jen Drechsler, co-director at Just Ask a Woman, and a consultant on Best Buy's initiative to target females. She recently spoke to a group of electronics manufacturers and said, "I told them I'm not here for your diversity or sensitivity training, I'm here to help you make more money."

A study by the Consumer Electronics Association found the most recent electronics purchase by 71% of women was for themselves, and 30% of women consider themselves to be early adopters of the latest technology. According to the CEA, women spend about $55 billion on electronics every year.

Maria Bailey, CEO of BSM Media and author of "Marketing to Moms: Getting Your Share of the Trillion Dollar Market," also has noticed a recent uptick in interest by electronics manufacturers. "In the past four to five months, I've had a number of companies like Philips, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard call me, and they all want to know one thing: `What can we do to sell to women?"'

Best Buy took its first step 18 months ago when it admitted to itself, and the industry, that it wasn't doing a good job of talking to women.

"A lot of moms said they come to Best Buy because they're dragged by their husbands, or children, for approval. Not a lot of them enjoyed Best Buy as a shopping experience," said Nancy Brooks, the Best Buy executive overseeing its "Jill" concept store initiative. "One woman in an early focus group said: `For the love of God, could it take 30 minutes or less?"'

Part of the problem, according to Best Buy's research, were sales staff who either didn't explain things enough or talked down to and insulted women consumers. So the company started with retraining salespeople to ask questions like "What do you want to take pictures of?" instead of "What brand of digital camera do you want?"

The push is part of a larger strategy at Best Buy to target its most lucrative customers. Last month, the retailer opened 12 "Jill" concept stores in California, targeting busy suburban moms, the most lucrative segment of the women groups Best Buy studied.

`just for kids'

The stores have personal shopping assistants, redesigned store layouts that include changes like grouping cameras by feature set instead of brand and a "Just for Kids" area in the center of the store where toys and products can be demonstrated and played with. Best Buy continues to work on other woman-friendly ideas, such as testing the idea of appliance-center layouts that look like real kitchens. Ms. Brooks said the concept stores' successes will be measured and noted, with the possibility for rollout to other stores.

RadioShack has also begun initiatives to communicate better with women, including store redesigns and an aggressive effort to hire more women managers. Office Depot similarly recognized that female business owners who were also "home CEOs" made up 80% of its foot traffic, Ms. Bailey said. It too has undergone redesigns to make stores more functional and feature friendly for women.

"The idea is to start looking at how a women is using products and how to adapt to that use," Ms. Bailey said. Best Buy, for instance, picked up on the common mom trend to keep gifts aside for last-minute party invitations. In its concept stores, shelf talkers in aisles of $20 or less items like DVDs or Walkmans, remind moms to stock their gift closets.

Still, most will admit, this is just the beginning of any women's movement in consumer electronics. Like the car industry, some electronics companies are afraid of "scaring away" men if they start targeting women, Ms. Bailey said. But that's not the case, Ms. Drechsler agreed. "Women are good articulators of human solutions. So people and marketers who listen to women will get the men's attention too," she said.

The Target Audience

46% of women said that they have the most influence in their households on purchasing decisions for consumer electronics

42% of women said that they have equal influence in their households on purchasing decisions for consumer electronics

30% of women consider themselves to be early adopters

91% consider reliability and durability as factors when they are shopping for consumer electronics in general

50% of women place high importance on the product being as portable as possible and having attractive styling and appearance

Over 50% of all households with women contain large screen color TVs, DVD players, portable boomboxes, computers, color printers, Internet access and cell phones

$55 Billion The amount spent by women on consumer electronics every year

Source: Consumer Electronics Association 2004 study, "Five Consumers to Watch."

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