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Meet Jane Geek


Managers from Dell Inc.'s () marketing and public relations staff flew from their Round Rock (Tex.) headquarters to New York earlier this year to meet with editors and sales reps at a dozen publications. Their mission wasn't too surprising: Get editors to print more about their computers, televisions, and pocketPCs.

It was the choice of magazines that was unusual, including Oprah Winfrey's O at Home, Ladies' Home Journal, and CosmoGIRL -- not exactly publications on the company's regular radar screen, despite the obviously large number of women tapping keyboards in offices and caf?s. In barely six months, though, Dell's laser printer, plasma TV, and notebook computer were featured as must-haves in gift guides in shelter magazines Real Simple and O at Home. And in August, CosmoGIRL gave Dell's 700m, 4-lb. notebook a "kiss of approval."

Dell isn't the only consumer electronics giant to have slept through the alarm when it comes to realizing that women are as interested as men in personal computing and home entertainment. RadioShack (), Best Buy (), and Samsung, too, have only recently begun to make big changes to their marketing plans, store designs, and products with women in mind. In an effort to avoid commodity status in crowded categories like TVs and PCs, they have dug deeper into customer's heads. Marketing executives noticed that women are much more involved in buying electronic gadgets but are completely underserved. Indeed this year, for the first time, women are expected to outspend men in the $122 billion market, according to the Consumer Electronics Assn.

It didn't take long, once it tuned in, for Dell to register that women are its fastest-growing customer group and key to its growth strategy, especially as it branches out to TVs and MP3 players. Its own research in 2004 showed women made up half of its buyers and were as likely as men to prefer buying PCs online. So besides the women's magazines, Dell is running ads on women-centric cable-TV channels such as Oxygen and Lifetime Television. It also placed a Dell TV and laptop on the set of Martha Stewart's new NBC daytime show. Before that, says Bobbi Dangerfield, director of customer experience, "you wouldn't have seen any Dell ads on these women's channels."

Blame the male geek culture at digital hardware marketers for ignoring women in the past. As recently as early 2003, Samsung Electronics tested its phones, TVs, and home theaters with all-male focus groups. Today, the company makes sure half its reviewers are women. The payoffs: Samsung designed its DuoCam -- the first two-lens digital camera and camcorder -- after women reported they liked to record "life events" both in photographs and video but didn't like to lug around two gadgets. The camera recently became lighter by 40%, again the result of female feedback.

CHIEF PURCHASING OFFICER

Samsung has bested its rivals in design awards the past two years, an accomplishment that Peter Weedfald, senior vice-president for sales and marketing at Samsung Electronics America Inc., attributes to listening to women. "Have you ever heard a man say: 'I wish they would change the design and color of this product and make it easier to use?"'

Demographics have a role to play in this shift. Women now head 33 million households, up from 21 million in 1980. Their buying power has grown, too. In the past three decades, men's median income has barely budged, up just 0.6%, while women's has soared 63% (though women still earn less than their male counterparts -- 78 cents for every dollar a man gets). And women need plenty of computing power given they are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, according to the Center for Women's Business Research.

The digital home has also come to confer on women the role of chief purchasing officer of computing and entertainment gear. They're judging the user-friendliness of computers and wireless networks just as they would stoves and refrigerators. "Last week my 11-year-old came in and said she needed a JumpDrive to transfer digital files back and forth from school, and who buys it? My wife," says Paul Rand, chief development and innovation officer at communications firm Ketchum (), which led a standing-room-only marketing-to-women forum at the Consumer Electronics Show last February.

Best Buy has caught on to the women's digital mind-set, too, launching its "Jill Initiative" to focus on what women want. "Jill," according to the retailer, is a time-pressured suburban mom who prefers shopping at Target Corp. (), because of its focus on style, over, say, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (). In the past year, Best Buy relaunched 60 stores, changing their look with pastel colors rather than the chain's traditional dark-blue and yellow scheme to create a more soothing experience. Personal shopping advisers whisk mostly female shoppers around the stores, steering clear of tech jargon. "The language of bits and bytes is a thing of the past," says Ketchum's Rand. A Best Buy salesperson doesn't talk megapixels but instead asks if a digital camera is primarily for still photos or soccer games and if buyers plan to print their own photos.

REMOTE FIX-IT

Women are far less likely than men to feign understanding of new technology, and thus they expect a high level of customer service. So Best Buy launched the Geek Squad service, whose men and women in white shirts and ties go so far as to offer home visits in a white-and-orange Volkswagen Beetle to fix, upgrade, and install hardware and software. Dell, meanwhile, last week rolled out Dell On Call, which allows its help desk to take over a computer remotely and fix it for customers who sign on.

Perhaps consumer electronics marketers wouldn't have taken so long to appreciate women if they had a few more in their ranks. Dell, for one, laments that women are only a third of its management ranks. Last March it held a diversity summit with 30 other companies to form a strategy to attract more women as employees, not just customers. "It's important that our employees reflect our customer base," says Stephanie Mims, senior manager of global diversity at Dell.

Some may view these efforts as pandering, the way auto makers in the 1950s tried pitching cars with matching handbags. But some see clear differences between the genders. RadioShack Chief Marketing Officer Don Carroll says women behave differently from their first step in the store, based on studying his in-store-motion cameras. "Men look left and right, identify their product, and head towards it, but women really shop the store before reaching their goal," says Carroll. He's changing lighting at the company's 5,000 outlets and making the stores less cluttered, a leading complaint among women and a move that will no doubt make it easier for men to shop as well. It's Mother, it seems, who knows best in the gadget aisle.

By Pallavi Gogoi


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