Net Meeting

Working Women & Male Shoppers

The big news about online retail in 2002 was the emerging dominance of female shoppers. Women now make up a majority of Internet users, and, given the fact that women disburse the bulk of all dollars spent in retail, that is good and important news for e-commerce. It's good because it portends future growth, and it's important because women don't shop like men, and they don't buy the same things.

Generally, women are more interested in health information, services and products, and less interested in financial activities. Home decor, gardening gear, clothing and toys are all product categories women tend to favor. It's also worth noting that because women do the bulk of holiday shopping, their increasing numbers online mean the Internet will get a greater share of the year-end buying rush.

In one trait, women are like all online shoppers. That is, they are using the Net in search of products and services they couldn't locate offline. Ninety-five percent of PoshTots' customers, for instance, are women looking for specialty items that they haven't had the time, energy or opportunity to find in their local brick-and-mortar stores. Says Adams, "It's a matter of time, convenience and selection."

Male Shoppers
Women may outnumber men online, but men still spend more time and money online. The main reason: Men shoppers still mainly purchase costly equipment such as stereos, computers and other electronic hardware. They make up the overwhelming majority of visitors, for instance, at Dell.com, CompUSA.com, HP.com and other high-tech, high-volume online retailers.

It's not all tech, however. Niche markets of many types for men make good opportunities for smaller online retailers such as GroomsOnline, a one-person West Hills, California, company that sells gifts for best men and groomsmen such as silver flasks, money clips and beer steins. One thing founder Mark Walerstein, 41, likes about male shoppers is, they are not especially price-sensitive. He bases the idea, in part, on the fact that his most expensive item--a $56 personalized baseball bat--is also his best seller. "I sell close to 100 bats a month," he says. "They don't balk at the price."

Men still aren't as attractive as women when it comes to building a business, however, because they tend to be disloyal, says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy and CEO of New York retail consulting firm Envirosell Inc. "You are looking for a customer base that is repeat customers," says Underhill. "Generally, guys aren't very good customers."

User-Unfriendly
Perhaps the most nearly universal trait of the increasingly diverse population of online shoppers is that they are frustrated.

Fifty-six percent of the time, the average willing online shopper is unable to complete an e-commerce transaction, according to usability researcher Jakob Nielsen. "In other words," he says, "Web sites lose about half their sales by being too difficult to use." That distressing statistic resulted from studies of many e-commerce Web sites, including videos of online shoppers attempting to locate products, complete shipping forms and perform other shopping-related tasks.

Most changes required to improve usability are simple, inexpensive and don't harm Web site performance, explains Nielsen, principal at Nielsen Norman Group. And just as all online shoppers want convenience, all online retailers want repeat customers. That won't happen with a hard-to-handle Web site. "If the Web site is too difficult [to use]," Nielsen notes, "people just go away."

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This article was originally published in the February 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Net Meeting.

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