What Women Want

Sweat the Details

Get the little stuff right, and the big stuff will take care of itself. Women develop a collage of impressions about a business from a hundred small factors. Everything from its cleanliness to the design of the shopping bag gets a woman's attention. While men tend to make judgments based on first impressions and key interactions, women never stop gathering information. Smart business owners turn this to their advantage by investing in small amenities women can appreciate.

Nancy Poisson, area director for 333 Curves franchises in northern New England, always looks for ways to draw new customers to the fitness centers. While each new franchise advertises locally when it first opens and offers free trials, customers renew memberships based on experiences at the training centers. Poisson has new franchisees plant free membership bags in waiting rooms of businesses ranging from pediatricians' offices to quick-lube shops. That gets potential members to come by the clubs for a week's worth of free sessions.

Then it's up to franchisees to keep the excitement going. New Curves owner Tammy Latvis of Hanover, New Hampshire, got 500 leads when she opened her second location in spring 2003. She ensures that workout leaders never flag in their encouragement of women clients who are self-conscious about how they look in workout clothes. Women turn into the centers' best missionaries when they invite friends to join them for free sessions. Latvis is always cooking up rewards for women who recruit new members. "It's like the 'free with purchase' mentality," she says. "It works!"

The Right Choices

Women have so many work and family responsibilities, they don't have time to research and ponder every buying decision. Offering carefully selected choices will win business over an overwhelming A-to-Z plethora. "One way to get women excited is to have fewer but better choices," says Carrie McCament, managing director of the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, consultancy Frank About Women. This is a strategy adopted by designer Eileen Fisher, who offers simple clothes in a limited palette; and some furniture stores, such as Storehouse Furniture in Atlanta, that have pared their selections to an "everything goes with everything else" array.

That's the core of Gretchen Schauffler's strategy to build a new brand of house paint. In the past three years, she has taken Devine Color Inc.'s paint from a nonentity to a boutique brand available on the Web, in West Coast stores and through more than 300 dealers nationwide. Schauffler saw an opportunity to reinvent wall paint and the way it's sold in the mid-90s when she and her friends were decorating their houses and getting frustrated with the paint available. Because traditional paint companies offer thousands of shades on tiny strips, there were too many choices. Schauffler, 42, and her friends would make choices according to the chips and end up with walls that looked nothing like they expected.

She created a palette of just over 100 colors, and collaborating with a regional paint manufacturer, she came up with a new way to merchandise the paint: daubs of paint on palette-shaped boards in coordinated groups. "Women would understand [if] color was organized in a way that they could recognize the subtleties. They do it with makeup and fabric all the time," she says. It's working. Devine Color Inc. is growing at 30 percent per year, bringing in 2003 revenues of $8 million.

Peggy McCloud, 49, owner of Jill's Paint, a home decorating boutique in Los Angeles, sees women customers walk into her store and gravitate to the Devine display. "They love the palettes of complementary colors and that you can go home and experiment," she says. Customers can buy pouches of each paint color for about $3, take them home and paint their walls to get a read on whether it's right for their rooms.

Seeing Green
Plenty of marketers think they know how to appeal to 18-to-24-year-old women, but there are surprising crosscurrents among college-age women. In August 2003, Frank About Women, a marketing consulting firm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, released a survey of women's attitudes about shopping. Enthusiasm for shopping peaks when a woman is in her 20s and when she's 55 and older, says Frank About Women marketing director Carrie McCament. "Younger shoppers' discretionary income is all theirs," she says. "They want to be the best-dressed person in their groups." Shopping and socializing are entwined for young women, she adds. Not only do friends' opinions count on everything, but young women also conduct buying excursions with friends.

So what's the surprise? Their moms count as friends. The generation gap doesn't exist anymore, say marketing consultants and executives at companies that target women. Having seen their moms manage careers and households, young women consider them a resource for smart consumer choices.

The key is to avoid assuming that today's young women are just like boomers were at the same age, warns Mary Lou Quinlan, CEO of Just Ask a Woman, a New York City consulting firm. Many young women have traveled widely and are accomplished and picky consumers. At the same time, a high proportion of them live at home. Though many carry student loan debt, they also have a lot of disposable income because they have no household expenses.

"They're not like [the characters in] Sex and the City," says Quinlan. "They're more conservative. They are optimists, but not activists." One thing they have in common: They expect purchasing and customer relations to be thoroughly supported by technology. This is one group, says Quinlan, that expects businesses to relate to them through e-mail and online ordering.

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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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