Wanna Know 'What Women Want'? Read On

Q&A With Paco Underhill, CEO of Envirosell

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Paco Underhill knows more about women than most men do. As the founder, CEO and president of Envirosell, he has spent decades methodically studying the habits of consumer behavior.

Paco Underhill
Paco Underhill
His first book, "Why We Buy," based on decades of research, observations and consulting, elegantly deconstructed an activity in which we all participate on a daily basis: shopping. His latest focuses on one important consumer segment and its impact on the retail world. "What Women Want" is clearly written by a male, but Mr. Underhill likes to point out that it was edited by Alice Mayhew, who also edited "Our Bodies, Ourselves." In a world of almost no female CEOs in retail and finance, Mr. Underhill spoke to Ad Age about how designing products and campaigns for women is changing.

Ad Age: As home sizes are shrinking for the first time in decades and people are cutting back on expenditures related to housing, is the "Dream Kitchen" changing?

Mr. Underhill: What we're looking for moving forward is what we call a smart kitchen. The kitchen is in effect doing a certain amount of maintenance of itself. We know that roughly 80% of our weekly food purchases are routine. I think we'll see something where you get an SMS from your kitchen: "This is my shopping list; can you place the order and pick it up for me?" If you ask most American women if they would be willing to trade hours of routine shopping for hours of being able to do something else, they would do it in a heartbeat.

Ad Age: How do advertisers get between the fridge and the consumer?

Mr. Underhill: One of the things that has always been the bugaboo in advertising is finding some way of generating trial. If I don't know that the new Gillette razor is a true improvement over the old one, then I am never going to trade up for it. The use of sampling and guerrilla marketing as a way of finding key consumers and getting them to try something is going to be a more sustained art form.

Ad Age: What should marketers do to reach women better?

Mr. Underhill: Recognize that the overwhelming majority of discretionary income in this country is held in the hands of women aged 50 and older. We have an advertising industry that is still very much focused on people who are 30 and under. For many women over the age of 50, one of the most important considerations in their lives isn't the things that they are acquiring themselves but the things they are acquiring for other people. It's the icons to their affection to someone else.

Best Buy had a program they ran in previous years called at AskaBlueShirt.net, which is: "How do you become a hero to the geek in your life if you are not one?" My significant other went through the program and bought me a Slingbox. She had no idea what a Slingbox was when she started the process. I was breathtakingly surprised when I opened the package.

Ad Age: What kind of products do you think are missing from the marketplace that women need but don't have access to?

Mr. Underhill: We need to think about our engines of living. According to the 2010 Census, I think we'll see fewer of us living in an "Ozzie and Harriet" world where you have a mother, father and dependent children living under one roof. Housing and retail are the reflections of social change. The housing issue is long overdue for examination.

Regardless of our economic crisis, most of us feel more time poor than money poor. One of the driving issues that we're looking at is convenience. Women are often desperate to save time. That is very important in terms of how we organize the continuing evolution of shopping engines as they relate to the web-enabled mobile phone. I think that the smartphone is in the process of profoundly changing the nature of shopping because it gives us access to information anywhere. Someone can be inside a Macy's and shopping Saks.com or Sephora.com at the same time. That's what we're calling the "crisis of convergence."

Ad Age: How do retailers keep them focused in their own stores?

Mr. Underhill: Some of it is recognizing that, increasingly, a merchant has to do a better job of packaging. Meaning, it isn't this GPS unit I'm selling. It's this GPS unit and the assistance to get it installed and working to your satisfaction.

Ad Age: What businesses are doing the best job of this?

Mr. Underhill: The best merchant cultures are evangelical. They are taking care of people who already believe in them and taking an active effort to get new converts at the other end of the spectrum. Look at a company like Trader Joe's, which has a tremendous amount of loyalty. It's about offering savings. It's about consumer-friendly products and stores that are imminently easy to get in and out of -- meaning that they're not too big. The Container Store is catering to the religion of being anal compulsive. Those are places where there's almost an earnest friendliness to it. I'm not just trying to sell you now, I'm trying to sell you forever.

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