Steal This Bag ...

... and Look Inside: A Hundred Women Show Marketers What Floats Their Totes -- and What Doesn't

By Published on .

Most Popular
BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- The purse is relatively unexplored territory for marketers. And no wonder: It's scary in there, filled with old gum wrappers, crumbs, lipstick with the cap off, tampons with the wrappers coming off and all manner of things best left unsaid.
What's in a woman's purse? Untapped marketing opportunities.
What's in a woman's purse? Untapped marketing opportunities.

But no more. Kelley Styring, a former market researcher for Procter & Gamble Co. and PepsiCo's Frito-Lay, and now principal of the marketing consultancy InsightFarm, Newburg, Ore., recently completed what she said is the first comprehensive look inside women's purses. She intercepted 100 women in malls in Oregon and Texas who were willing to let strangers sort through and film the contents of their purses.

She's completed a 160-page report on her findings and plans to publish a book. What she found may be a little surprising for marketers. Viewer discretion advised.

Most women had at least one loyalty-club card and at least one membership card to a video store or other retailer. Separately, last week, industry publication Colloquy pegged the number of loyalty cards at 1.3 billion, enough for everyone in the U.S. to have four and every household to have at least 10. Women's purses and wallets are bursting with cards. But how loyal can they be to 10 programs at once?
These were common, showing such trinkets really do stand the test of time. The problem is, brand names frequently were worn off. Cheap printing is not a good idea for your promo item.
If a marketer gets anything in a woman's purse, it tends to stay a long time -- for better or worse. One woman had seven cigarette lighters in her purse (she kept losing them in there). Another had a prostitution summons she tried to pass off as a parking ticket. One had a penis-shaped pencil topper. And another had a wrapper from a male-enhancement tablet (the woman blamed her husband, adding that it didn't work). The average purse had two ounces of trash, mostly paper, out of an average of 3.5 pounds.
Yes, that kind, too, but 14% of purses had some manner of weapon, most often a knife, followed by pepper spray. Amazingly, though half the research was conducted in Texas, no guns.
72% of purses had them. But women often can't find them when they're ringing. The volume needs to be turned way up -- and flashing lights wouldn't hurt either. External cellphone holsters, at least for women less concerned about tony designer looks, might help too.
There's a reason men are afraid or reach into women's bags: They're disgusting. Ms. Styring suggests a deodorizer or disinfectant tablet from P&G's Febreze or SC Johnson's Oust to disinfect a purse's interior. Also, more hand sanitizers, such as a key fob made by Johnson & Johnson's Purell, would be useful.
A remarkable 11 of 100 women had little vials of hand or body lotion from Bath & Body Works -- a sign that, despite seemingly less overall household penetration, a well-designed, nice-smelling product can be a big hit in women's purses. By comparison, only two purses had a leading mass brand -- Jergens.
61% of purses had them, but nine women had expired coupons. Store coupons were most prevalent. Younger women tended not to bother with coupons.
85% of purses had receipts, including one dating back to 2001. Some method for organizing these or scanning them conveniently and affordably probably would be welcome.
Madison Avenue types may live and die by them, but regular women, at least those walking around malls, don't. Only one or two were found in the 100 purses in the study. That's about as many as had prostitution summons. By comparison, more than a third had some kind of day planner, and many more wrote phone numbers on little slips of paper scattered in their purses. It's a sign both that the PDA market could get bigger, if priced right, and that paper-based planners and address books have much life left.
You would not want to eat stuff that's been in one of these things too long. Despite their portability, breakfast bars were rare in purses. But Altoids, with their purse-friendly package, were, not surprisingly, found in many handbags.
Though 91% of purses had beauty-care items, they weren't pretty. They don't hold up to the rough and tumble of women's purses. Paper labels wear off almost immediately. Screen-printed logos disappear. And most women's cosmetics are a mess inside their purses. For example, caps that fall off leave lipstick covered with hair and other debris. Ewwww. Time for some serious design improvements.

In this article: