Whether they're married or single, women are likely to own tools needed for emergency home repairs, the EDK Forecast survey found. (chart) HARDWARE BUILDS AWARENESS AMONG WOMEN

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Women are increasingly picking up tools and handling tasks around the home, but some hardware marketers and retailers have been slow in taking the hint.

In a May survey of 500 women, 90% said they own three of five less common tools for minor repairs: plunger, monkey wrench, toilet snake, ladder and fire extinguisher. Most can find the circuit breaker and are able to shut off the water at home, reported EDK Forecast, New York, which conducted the survey.

Still, some hardware makers and retailers have been slow to approach the market, said Ethel Klein, president of EDK Associates. Larger chains have been the first to adjust.

Calling it a "phenomenon of the late '80s," Ms. Klein attributed the rise in women's tool ownership to more divorced women being forced to handle minor home emergencies, and more married and single women buying less expensive homes that need repairs.

"It's no longer a man thing," Ms. Klein said. "[Retailers] are poised to discover this."

Some who follow the market say there are rewards. In 1993, hardware outlets in the U.S. saw sales rise 9.8% to $104.4 bil-lion, said Walt Johnson, senior editor of Do It Yourself Retailing, Indianapolis. The magazine's parent, the National Retail Hardware Association/Home Center Institute, said women account for 49.6% of purchases.

One retailer that spotted the trend early and tried to capitalize on it has been Builders Square. Starting in 1991, the San Antonio-based company started redesigning its traditional 60,000-square-foot, warehouse-style outlets to create the 110,000-square-foot Builders Square II stores. Designers encircled new stores' interiors with a linoleum "racetrack" floor and put the decorator design center toward the front, said Mary Bowman, marketing director.

What had been a "frightening, intimidating" warehouse was transformed to a user-friendly retail outlet, Ms. Bowman said. "We've made some inroads in the ease-of-shopping area, and that's very important because women are very involved in the decisionmaking process."

Three years ago, Builders Square began running ads targeting the women's market in Home, House Beautiful, Eating Well, Woman's Day and Better Homes & Gardens.

The effort coincided with the first run of the retailer's Idea Book. Geared to women and do-it-yourselfers, the collateral ad piece was created by women's marketing agency Harris Marketing Group, Ann Arbor, Mich., which also did the women's print ads.

Comfort, value, price and general information are key to building the relationship with women, said Harris President Janice Shukle.

"Marketers need to understand how to talk to those women," she said. "Women don't want to know they're being targeted just because they're women."

"There's no question that [Builders Square is] effecting a real change in the marketplace," said Arthur Rosenberg, research editor with the Directory of Home Center Operators & Hardware Chains, St. Petersburg, Fla. "This is a key trend."

Other marketers targeting a wider range of shoppers with more attractive layouts and product selection include Ernst Home & Nursery, Seattle; Eagle Hardware & Garden, Tukwila, Wash.; Project-Pros, Braintree, Mass.; and Home Quarters, Landover, Md. Home Quarters, trying to keep shoppers as long as possible, even offers daycare, Mr. Rosenberg said.

HomeBase, Fullerton, Calif., tries to lure women with selection and in-store seminars that encourage first-timers to tackle new projects like installing a ceiling fan or building a deck, said Public Relations Director Carol Elfstrom. Some print ads, which HomeBase handles in-house, reflect increased demand for interior decor and nursery-gardening materials.

Stanley Tools, New Britain, Conn., two years ago began its "family initiative," where 35 popular tools originally created in neon colors for industrial use were repositioned for sale through discount retailers like Kmart Corp., Wal-Mart Stores and Target Stores, said Ken Schwartz, manager-consumer markets. The company also started "Stanley essentials," featuring inexpensive tools, partly because more women head households, he said.

No ad support from Ammirati & Puris, New York, targets the women's market, Mr. Schwartz said, though "We make sure that the right products are available for the women to purchase. Maybe it's not unique to Stanley, but it is a conscious effort."

Tools also have become more popular among newlyweds. Some hardware chains now offer bridal registries, which have boosted the comfort level of female customers, said Ms. Bowman of Builders Square. She said it's a matter of practicality.

"It's more meaningful to them to have a great patio set or gas grill than to have fine china," she said. "Certainly, the fact that women feel more comfortable in the stores would contribute to" women having tool bridal registries."

Leah Rickard coordinates Research News.

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