Paco Underhill on what women want to buy.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 14 2010 10:12 AM

What Women Want: The Dude Version

Paco Underhill's unenlightening take on marketing to female buyers.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

It was mighty bold of Paco Underhill to title his new book What Women Want and to fill its pages with confident proclamations on the matter. Underhill is, after all, a dude—and a never-married dude, at that. What makes him so sure he understands the contours and crannies of the collective female psyche?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Years of marketing research, that's what. In his role as founder and CEO of Envirosell, a research and consulting firm that studies consumer habits, Underhill has made a career out of investigating the mindset of the modern shopper. With female earning power and agency on the rise (see Hanna Rosin's recent Atlantic cover story for more on this retail-landscape-altering development), it is increasingly his job to determine, in precise detail, what women want. Or at least what they want to pay for.

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The short list, according to Underhill's introduction? "Cleanliness"—as in sparkling department store dressing rooms and health club swimming pools. "Control"—as in adjustable climate settings and versatile seating configurations. "Safety"—as in adequate lighting levels in parking garages and locks on hotel windows. "Considerateness"—as in assistance getting a bulky purchase home from the store.

Wishing to be clean, safe, in control, and politely attended to is entirely reasonable. But what does any of it have to do with being female? I'd argue that very few men are fans of filthy dressing rooms, frigid movie theaters, pitch-dark parking lots, and the lugging of unwieldy boxes. (OK, maybe the last one doesn't bother us quite as much, since we're bigger.) Underhill acknowledges that he hasn't exactly identified a gender fault line. "It isn't that making a retail environment more female-friendly ends up turning it somehow less male-friendly," he writes. "The irony is that, by walking the female path, you end up making things better for women and men." For unemployed men edged out of the workforce by better-qualified women, the war of the sexes may seem like a zero-sum game. But for Underhill, the win-win scenario holds that catering to empowered female consumers—and their cultivated, feminine tastes—will beget cozy farmer's markets and healthy yoga classes for everyone.

After laying out his broad guidelines, Underhill applies them to the minutiae of female retail desire. There are chapters describing what women want from a kitchen, a bathroom, a mall, a hotel room, a hair salon, and a cosmetics counter. These descriptive passages provide a showcase for Underhill's writerly flair: A thick telephone cord is an "umbilicus"; a Westerner in Japan emits an odor with "a hint of the stockyard"; farmer's markets were once home solely to "hippies selling bruised turnips." But while What Women Want is full of bold, stylish declarations, it's surprisingly light on hard-earned evidence and data.

That's a disappointing contrast to Underhill's first book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, which was rich in specifics gleaned from the painstaking video and statistical analysis that Underhill slaved at in his work with Envirosell. We learned about the "butt-brush effect," whereby a shopper at a clothing rack in a highly trafficked area of a store will inevitably abandon her perusing if she's jostled from behind more than once. We discovered that 65 percent of men who take jeans into a fitting room will buy them, compared with only 25 percent of women. The quotidian world of retail—forever in front of our noses—was suddenly illuminated in startling new ways, its hidden strategies and choreographies laid bare. Underhill tossed off his proprietary observations with the air of a magician happily revealing his own tricks.

What Women Want contains few such sparkling revelations. Instead, we get lots of gender-polarizing assumptions that we're asked to accept on blind faith. Take Underhill's claim that the McMansion fad is an entirely male-driven phenomenon. Underhill muses that the blanketing of the country with all those massive, garish faux-Tudors is surely testament to "the male ego run amok." He's certain that women, tired of cleaning all that square footage, will put an end to the trend. Perhaps it's true that men adore McMansions while women abhor them. But if Underhill has evidence—even anecdotal—to back up this assertion, he never shares it with us.

Likewise, the chapter on hotel rooms offers zero empirical insight. Rather, it's based almost entirely on a conversation Underhill has with a female friend who's a frequent business traveler. She says she prefers hotels with soft, curvy furniture, and earth tone palettes. Good to know. But this is not "what women want." It's what one particular woman wants. (Had Underhill endeavored to expand his survey, a second woman might well have expressed her fondness for slick surfaces, severe angles, and neon colors.) Elsewhere, the book gets even more reductive, devolving into a "men are like this, women are like this" stand-up routine: Men love to preside over barbecue grills, we're told in the kitchen chapter, while the bathroom chapter informs us that women spend lots of time primping in front of mirrors.

What if you require useful guidelines for marketing to women, and don't want to settle for Underhill's breezy, unsupported riffs? The more determined reader will be better served by Why She Buys, a 2009 book by Bridget Brennan, CEO of the strategy firm Female Factor. Here you'll find comprehensive, female-focused selling techniques advocated by an actual woman. Brennan highlights the upside of placing gals on the product development team (Calloway, for instance, devised a new line of golf clubs featuring female-friendly ergonomics—instead of simply painting a set of men's clubs pink). And she shows us the downside of leaving them off the advertising team (male advertising creatives tend to design campaigns full of conflict and aggression and can sometimes forget the power of portraying a positive emotional arc).

Though it may take time, I've no doubt that the marketing juggernaut will eventually settle on efficient methods for wresting away all this new female wealth. Women, emerging victorious in their struggle for economic might, will then claim the spoils: a rising chorus of assaultive, implacable sales pitches. We can only hope Paco Underhill is right, and that the ancillary benefit will be fewer McMansions and more yoga.

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