Retooling Home Improvement


By Amy Tsao Mary Matuszak was having a grand time at a recent women-only class held at a Manhattan Home Depot (HD) store, where 30 women gathered to learn how to use power tools. "I see a power drill in my future," said Matuszak, a 40-year-old single librarian who bought a house in Brooklyn two years ago. This was her third Home Depot class. Each one has helped her build confidence to tackle new home-improvement challenges. She's currently regrouting her bathtub.

In targeting women like Matuszak who aspire to carry out do-it-yourself-projects conventionally considered "man's work," Home Depot is tapping into a long-overlooked and lucrative market segment. While women have traditionally been the keepers of the home, the housing boom of recent years, gradual shifts in gender roles, and an increasing number of households headed by single females have helped boost women's interest and involvement in home projects.

RESULTS OF LISTENING. In a 2004 survey conducted by Sears (S), some 83% of 603 female homeowners polled said working with tools makes them feel independent. A similar percentage of respondents said they admire women proficient in home repair.

Home Depot isn't alone in pursing renovation-minded women. Competitor Lowe's (LOW) and Sears are also making strides in female-friendliness.

A look at statistics sheds light on the trend. After married couples, single women are the largest group of home buyers in the U.S., responsible for 21% of transactions, according to the National Association of Realtors. By 2010, the number of women-headed households is expected to rise to nearly 31 million, representing about 28% of the U.S. total, according to a 2003 Fannie Mae study.

Warehouse store Lowe's has been a leader in serving women more effectively. "We took a step back and listened to our female customers," says Lowe's spokesperson Julie Valeant-Yenichek. The result of research that started in the early 1990s has been stores with wider aisles, brighter lighting, and clear displays.

DEMO TO SALES. "Women are information gatherers -- they want the stores to be inspirational," says Valeant-Yenichek. In the fall of 2004, the company introduced "recipe cards" that explain various projects that take only one weekend. It also began once-monthly how-to sessions that appeal mainly to women. In February, a Lowe's store will teach participants how to make decorative trays.

In the past two years, Home Depot has been playing catch up by making changes like improved store lighting and displays. "We've increased focus on product innovation, in-store environment, and broadened marketing efforts -- to both women and men," says John Costello, executive vice-president of merchandising and marketing at Home Depot. In May, 2003, the company launched free Do It Herself workshops held once per quarter nationwide, which some 200,000 women have attended.

The Atlanta-based retailer says the workshops provide insight into what women want and participants translate their increased knowledge into purchases. "At the conclusion of clinics, our female participants are very interested in purchasing the products and services they saw demonstrated," says Costello. "[The workshops] provide real value to customers, strengthen our brand, and lead to increased sales."

EMPOWERING TOOLS. Sears, a major retailer of tools and major appliances, is equally interested in developing stronger ties with female shoppers. "Women are our primary customers," says Joan Chow, Sears' vice-president of multicultural and home-services marketing. "Because of that, we wanted to make sure we were staying in touch with their needs." Hoffman Estates (Ill.)-based Sears has conducted surveys of women homeowners since 2002.

Based on that data, Sears created in July, 2004, a Web site, www.searshome101.com, that provides users with resources and checklists for a variety of home projects. "We learned that a lot of women are worried about being responsible for their home on their own," says Chow, adding that the company is considering ways to bring more women to the Web site.

Barbara Kavovit, CEO of Barbara K Enterprises, took the trend into her own hands -- literally. "Women have made so many strides but can't fix things in their homes," she says. "I had to change that." She launched her woman-friendly Barbara K tools line in October, 2003.

CROSS-GENDER APPEAL. The functional and stylish tools have extra cushion grips and spring-assisted technology but don't come in "girly" colors. They're sold at Bloomingdales (FD), Target (TGT), and on Amazon.com (AMZN). "My tools embody the feeling of empowerment and spirit that we strive to have," she says. Kavovit says sales were $5 million in 2004.

Companies need to take care, however, not to overplay the gender card. "A very important part of the [home-improvement business] is still more down-market, more male," says Geoff Wissman, an analyst at Retail Forward, a retail consultancy in Columbus, Ohio. After all, a quarter of sales at home-improvement retailers come from contractors, who are predominantly male. The key is to figure out a balance between meeting men's and women's interests.

Wilksboro (N.C)-based Lowe's has found that women prefer to do bigger home-improvement projects with a man -- be it boyfriend, husband, or neighbor. As a result, in addition to its recipe-card classes, Lowe's offers co-ed in-store clinics for projects like sink installation. "Women like to feel they're given the same attention as a male customer," says Valeant-Yenichek, who points out that seminar attendees -- whether male or female -- are inexperienced. Lowe's doesn't carry products marketed exclusively to women.

WILLING BUYERS. Sears is also searching for the right balance for wooing females without turning off males. Its research has found that a large number of women prefer receiving tools over traditional gifts, but "we're really careful not to segment tool buyers by men and women," Chow says. Like Lowe's, Sears doesn't carry tools specifically designed for women.

Mastering home-improvement challenges is a smart move for any homeowner of either gender. Retailers are helping to keep their own houses in order by recognizing that women, like men, are willing and able to learn -- and buy. Tsao is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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