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Men vs. Women: Differences in Shopping Habits & Buying Decisions


John Gray’s 1992 book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” confirmed what men and women have always known: The two sexes differ in their perspectives, motives, rationales, and actions. Even though the reason for the differences (nature or nurture) continues to be debated, study after study reflects similar results, and sophisticated companies have adapted their customer outreach programs to account for these differences. Everything from advertising style, message, and media, to product design, store layout, sales training, and customer service policies are designed to appeal specifically to both sexes.

The goal of every retailer is to:

  • Lure shoppers
  • Make them stay in the store longer
  • Influence their buying decisions
  • Turn them into return customers

Failure to address the idiosyncrasies of gender can have real financial consequence for retailers. In a New York Times article published on February 16, 2012, Eric Siegel, a consultant and chairman of the Predictive Analytics World conference, stated, “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”

The Differences Between Women and Men

Whether (and to what extent) men and women differ has been a controversial subject for years. Many scientists are concerned that perceived differences have led to discrimination and unfair treatment under the assumption that one gender has attributes the other does not. While there are observable differences between the brains of men and women and how they process information, researchers emphasize that the differences do not reflect a superiority of a single gender.

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Furthermore, studies indicate that sex-specific characteristics fall along a broad continuum containing substantial overlap between sexes. Trying to accurately stereotype a single individual is difficult, if not impossible. In other words, if you pick one male and one female out of a crowd, they could be very similar or dissimilar depending on each person’s unique characteristics. Nevertheless, recognizing the general characteristics of each sex is important to product retailers, especially if their product is designed to appeal predominately to one sex or the other.

Even though both sexes are capable of equivalent intellectual performance, there are numerous physical differences between male and female brains:

  • Women have a thicker corpus callosum, the bridge of nerve tissue that connects the left and right side of the brain, leading women to use both sides of their brains to solve problems. Men predominately use the left side of their brains for this purpose.
  • Men have a larger brain size by about 10%, but women have substantially more nerve endings and connections (white matter) than men.
  • Men and women use different areas of the brain for solving tasks. For example, women use their larger, more organized cerebral cortex to perform tasks, while men rely on the larger proportion of gray matter in the left hemisphere of their brains. As a consequence, women are generally better at identifying and controlling their emotions, while men are more task-focused.

These differences enable researchers to attract particular shoppers by aligning marketing messages, advertising, product features, store layouts and displays (including colors), and customer service with the expectations of the desired customers’ gender and shopping characteristics. Being aware of the influence your gender exerts on the products you buy and the price you pay can make you a more discriminating buyer.

The Impact of Purchase Habits

Whether you’re a man or a woman, your purchasing decisions are based more on habit than rational decision-making, according to Dr. Neale Martin, professor at Kennesaw State University’s Cole College of Business. Tony Ezell, vice president of Eli Lilly and Company agrees, using the example of physicians who, acting with their unconscious brains when making decisions, continue to prescribe medications they are used to, even when they understand that new drugs are better and safer. Once buying habits are established, they’re difficult to dislodge because it’s human nature to resist change.

Knowing that habit drives most buying decisions and consumer behavior, companies focus on the initial buying decision to gain an advantage before a habit is established, ensuring their products or services are the beneficiaries of eventual habit formation. These efforts are focused on the following:

  • Initial Stimulation of a Need. Millions of dollars are spent each year to motivate buyers to purchase particular products in the belief that the products will make them healthier, wealthier, safer, or  more attractive. This is the logic behind special sales, coupons, and discounts. In fact, individuals going through major life events are especially vulnerable to new appeals since they often don’t notice, nor care, that their shopping habits have shifted. But retailers notice, and they care quite a lot. At these unique moments, UCLA Professor Alan Andreasen wrote in a 1980s study, customers – both men and women –  are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homeowner, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.
  • Influence of Third Parties. Third-party endorsements by friends, social peers, or authority figures influence our selection of products. Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the author of “Contagious: Why things Catch On,” says, “People often think that contagious products just get lucky. But it’s not luck and it’s not random. It’s science.” Berger claims as many as half of all purchasing decisions are driven by word-of-mouth marketing because it’s considered more trustworthy than traditional advertising, even when that’s not the case. As a consequence, retailers constantly seek out customer endorsements and enlist celebrities as product spokespeople to help gain an edge.
  • Personal Evaluation. Your decision to pick one product over another is influenced by a number of factors, including the appeal of the packaging and the method or convenience of payment. These subconscious factors can actually exert more influence over your decision than price or quality. Understanding your motive for purchasing one item over another helps you make better choices.

While it would be impractical (and impossible) to systematically evaluate and objectively determine every purchase, consumers should be aware of the habits that drive their buying decisions. In cases where outcomes are more critical – significant differences in price, quality, durability, convenience, or utility – a more rational purchasing process is usually justified to ensure a successful result.

Purchase Habits Impact

Male and Female Shopping Stereotypes

Despite near equality in numbers, according to Bloomberg, women make more than 85% of the consumer purchases in the United States, and reputedly influence over 95% of total goods and services purchased. Women as a whole are considered more sophisticated shoppers than men, taking longer to make a buying decision.

Marti Barletta, president of The TrendSight Group and coauthor of “Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How they Buy,” explains that men would rather buy a workable product than continue to shop, while women would rather continue to shop in the hope of finding a perfect solution. In other words, women are more selective and more likely to buy a product that fits all of their requirements.

Female Shoppers

According to a 2007 survey by the AMP Agency, “A woman’s approach to shopping is very much part of who she is; it is part of her DNA.” The way a woman shops when she is 18 years old is the same way she is going to shop when she is 43 years old. It is a lifelong mindset. This insight was unexpected, as most observers expected women’s shopping habits to change as they grew older.

The AMP study claims women fall into four distinct mindsets which dictate their respective shopping patterns:

  • Social Catalysts. This group represents slightly more than one-third of women. They tend to be planners, organizers, take pride in their friendship status, and consider themselves the expert within their social circle. As a consequence, they tend to be “influencers.” Almost 80% of this group think a night on the town is money well spent, but they are likely to seek out bargains to keep up with the latest trends.
  • Natural Hybrids. This group of stable and poised women represents about one-third of women, slightly less than the social catalyst group. The natural hybrids seem to operate in a continual state of equilibrium. They know there’s a time and place for everything – a time to spend, and a time to save. Their approach to shopping falls between safe, practical purchases and splurges. They tend to purchase classic products: long-lasting items that aren’t too trendy.
  • Content Responsibles. About one-fifth of women neither set nor spread trends. This group tends to treat shopping as an errand or chore, rather than a fun experience or an adventure. However, they tend to be lifelong and increasingly loyal customers. 80% do not consider social status an important part of their life. Like most men, these practical, responsible, loyal consumers crave a hassle-free shopping experience.
  • Cultural Artists. Representing slightly more than 1 in 10, women in this group are considered the “super shoppers,” constantly trying different things and starting new trends. They are the group companies actively seek for new products.

Women tend to be more astute consumers than men, simply because they are willing to invest the time and energy necessary to research and compare products. At the same time, their two-sided brain approach to problem solving makes them more susceptible to emotional appeals than a man.

Even though women are considered better shoppers, they would benefit by:

  • Prioritizing Purchases. Aligning shopping method and source to the cost and use of the product saves time and energy. Not every purchase requires a marathon of store visits or extensive comparison; some products are commodities with little difference in utility or price and do not justify extensive effort in the decision to purchase one item over another.
  • Using Online Shopping More. Women have lagged behind men in replacing in-store purchases with online shopping – an environment more conducive to product and price comparison. Many e-retailers offer smartphone shopping apps that facilitate comparisons to help consumers select the best product for their objective.
  • Resisting Impulse Purchases. Retailers are especially adept at triggering emotional purchases with store design, display, and pricing. As a consequence, normal habits of comparison and evaluation are ignored, often to the detriment of the shopper whose impulsively purchased product is inferior in quality, exorbitantly priced, or of little use.
Resisting Impulse Purchases

Male Shoppers

An article in Forbes suggests that for most men, shopping for clothes is like “doing your own brain surgery.” Another study suggests that male grocery shoppers are “like a dog looking for a lost ball in a field – they cross-hatch frantically until they stumble upon what they are looking for by chance.”  The same study describes men as “pragmatic shoppers,” considering success as “leaving with what you came for, having experienced a logical and efficient shopping process.”

In other words, men like to get in, get what they need, and get out fast. Men aren’t major comparison shoppers and they’re willing to pay a little more to speed up the process than to spend time hunting down bargains. In The Wall Street Journal, Delia Passi, CEO of the research and consumer advocacy group WomenCertified, claims that to men, the worst outcome is to walk out of a store empty-handed.

According to Jim Foster, marketing consultant and retail coach, “Men generally shop alone. Men seldom compare prices. Men don’t care if the item is on sale. Men really don’t care about the color. Men sometimes compare quality, but usually only when it involves tools.” Stores catering to men understand these tendencies and focus marketing on inventory depth, technical features, and efficient payment processes. Men are less likely to hunt for bargains or use coupons. Men are also more likely to accept a less-than-ideal product, preferring to avoid another shopping trip.

Male consumers would benefit by:

  • Being More Price Conscious and Less Time-Sensitive. When purchasing personal products, men should apply the same techniques they use when making business purchases: understanding how the product is used, who uses it, which features are necessary, and what is offered at different price points. This process takes longer, but results in more effective product purchasing.
  • Becoming More Discriminating. The growth of e-commerce has stimulated new buying behaviors for men that may eventually transfer to brick-and-mortar shops. According to an iProspect study, 70% of affluent males regularly shop online and employ the shopping methods used successfully by women in the physical world. Paradoxically, a Performics’ 2011 Social Shopping study indicates that men are more likely than women to research and compare products online.
  • Anticipating Future Needs. Unlike women who shop based on future needs (food for next week, a dress for an upcoming anniversary), men tend to purchase when the need is immediate, limiting the ability to compare or take advantage of discounts, deals, or out-of-season sales.

Final Word

Shopping is the driver of the nation’s economy. Simon Hoggart, a noted British journalist, claims that shopping, to Americans, is an affirmation of faith in our country. We have a physical, moral, and economic reason to shop – but there are no rules that say we should buy or pay higher prices for products that don’t completely fulfill our wants and needs.

What type of shopper are you? How do you make decisions about your purchases?

Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.