Of Gadgets and Gender


By Pallavi Gogoi Five years ago, Samsung Electronics wanted to test how its phones, TVs, and home-theater systems would be received by consumers. So it showed them to focus groups comprised of its target consumer: Adult males, aged 25 to 50.

The makeup of these groups has changed since then -- they're now 50% women. "We now recognize that the female consumer is influencing, if not controlling, 50% of all consumer-electronic purchasing today," says Jonas Tanenbaum, senior marketing manager of flat-panel displays for Samsung Electronics America in Ridgefield Park, N.J.

SHARPER ON PRICES. Samsung isn't the only consumer-electronics company to recognize the growing power of the female consumer. In November, retailer Tweeter Home Entertainment (TWTR) started using female voices in its radio and TV advertising. It also changed its catalogue covers to show a woman in a home-theater setting after internal research showed that females were twice as likely to buy a flat-panel TV than males.

Indeed, companies across America that make and sell flat-panel TVs, digital cameras, and computers are rapidly rethinking how they design, produce, and market to their consumers.

Recent research from the Consumer Electronics Assn. shows that women spend $50 billion and buy almost half of all electronic goods sold in the U.S. At the same time, they're on par with men in their ability to understand gadgets and are also early adopters, according to the CEA. However, the difference is that they're more likely than men to shop around for better prices and demand reliability, ease of use, and style.

TAILORED INFORMATION This has led Best Buy (BBY) to adopt the "Jill Initiative," a program to target its typical female customer. "Jill" is a trend-savvy working suburban mom with a fair amount of disposable income, who's likely to shop at Target (TGT) as opposed to Wal-Mart (WMT).

The consumer-electronics retailer found that women read Target's newspaper inserts for ideas about how to better design their homes and use Best Buy's inserts for research and price comparison. So, Best Buy is using scenes that depict family life in its inserts and peppering them with gift ideas for children and friends.

As Best Buy discovers more of women's wants and needs, it's rolling out newer programs and advertising in magazines like Real Simple and Better Homes & Gardens. Last year, it launched 68 concept stores in California and Nevada, where personal assistants whisk female shoppers into their domain and provide them with information tailored to their needs.

THE LURE OF FAUX CROC. Rather than throw numbers at the shoppers about the size of a hard drive or the number of pixels on a camera, these representatives walk them through the uses of a computer or a camera and how it meets their needs. "We're enabling her transformation into a big-time electronics buyer by talking her language," says Nancy Brooks, vice-president and segment leader for the women's initiative at Best Buy.

Some companies are catering to the female shopper even earlier in the process -- during the design phase. X2, a computer manufacturer in Irvine, Calif., observed that notebooks were often designed with a male user in mind. "Women are asking for a lighter notebook, with a better keyboard that has all the cool features and reflects their style," says Rex Wong, president of X2.

So the outfit came up with a $1,299 notebook that weighs 4 pounds, has the latest Intel processor, a CD burner, and a built-in memory card. Starting in late February, buyers will have four colors to choose from -- pink, powder blue, pale green, and silver -- and can match the computers with stylish totes that come in suede, faux croc, or leather.

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE. With women in mind, Dell (DELL) has jacked up the number of accessories on its site. "We started offering stylish jackets in different colors for the Pocket DJ at the direct request of our women customers," says Gretchen Miller, a director of product marketing for the PC maker in Austin, Texas.

Other products designed to meet the demands of female buyers include: Vision Art, a framed piece of art that rolls up to reveal a plasma TV at the touch of a button ($3,500), from Solar Shading Systems, and GlamCam, a high-resolution Web camera ($99.99) from General Electric (GE) that flips open to reveal a mirror on one side and a color LCD screen on the other.

"It's a top-of-the line camera that comes in a stylish red and fits into a woman's purse," says Jason Trice, director of product development at Jasco, which makes consumer-electronic products for GE.

Women clearly place a premium on the combination of style and substance, function and fashion. And companies are increasingly finding that it's a winning combination. Gogoi is a writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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