What Women Want

The growing economic power of women consumers is transforming today's marketplace. Find out how to tap into the desires of women--and watch your business take off.

Freud famously wondered, "What does a woman want?" He never figured it out, but many business owners have-and are making money in the process. What women want right now is attention to detail in product design and service; the right choices, not endless choices; and a nuanced, longer selling process that respects their desire to understand what they're buying before they take it home.

This prevailing wisdom doesn't just apply to the obvious categories like clothes, kids' stuff and cosmetics. Marketers of any product or service can adopt a service philosophy that delivers what women want. Once you translate these expectations to your market niche, you'll win the hearts and pocketbooks of women.

That pocketbook is big and carries plenty of cash. Trend watchers say the escalating economic power of women is emerging as one of the biggest business stories of this decade.

Management guru Tom Peters discovered the importance of women in 1996 when a colleague dragged him to a meeting of high-powered women. Listening to their stories of how businesses brushed aside their requests was a shock. "The more I talked, the more people brought me stories," says Peters. "I thought, How weird is [it] that nobody talks about this?" Peters made the economic power of women a central point in his new book, Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age.

Women have been ignored because they're in plain sight. It's standard marketing wisdom that women control 80 percent of all household purchases. That's why marketers of household supplies, kids' gear, food, cosmetics and clothes are good at reaching women. But women buy gender-neutral stuff, too: cars, auto services, technology-the list includes everything but Viagra.

Women's earning power is escalating: They comprise over half of all college students and about 38 percent of small-business owners, according to 2002 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A February 2002 study by Prudential Financial found that, of the 400 American women surveyed, 37 percent live in households with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000, and 12 percent live in households with more than $100,000 in annual income. Nearly half of adult women are solely responsible for saving money for their households.

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Margaret Gardner of marketing consulting firm Yankelovich reports that 60 percent of women 16 and older are working. In nearly two-thirds of households, women are the primary shoppers, but 72 percent of married women who work full time are the primary shoppers. No business owner can afford to ignore women, and few would admit to doing so. But not ignoring them is not the same as attracting them, and attracting them is not the same as winning their loyalty.

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This article was originally published in the February 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What Women Want.

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