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A Peek Under the Hood of a Business Book


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Research that was questioned is being revised, but there's no fix for self-evident conclusions

Women Want More:

How to Capture Your Share of the World's Largest, Fastest-Growing Market

By Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre with John Butman

HarperCollins; $27.99

In Women Want More, Senior Partner Michael J. Silverstein and Partner Kate Sayre of Boston Consulting Group, plus writer John Butman, set out to explain how to market to female shoppers. But their work unintentionally raises a pair of important questions: How rigorous does research for business books need to be? And does it matter if the authors have much that's original to say?

Silverstein and Butman, along with co-author Neil Fiske, have already written a hit in the genre, Trading Up (Portfolio), regarded as an essential primer on luxury marketing that made BusinessWeek's list of business best sellers in 2004. In a book-jacket blurb for Women Want More , meanwhile, no less a figure than Indra Nooyi, the chief executive of PepsiCo (PEP), a BCG client, calls it "truly inspirational."

Silverstein and Sayre begin by saying they've surveyed more than 12,000 women and profiled 50 companies. They compare this research with the inquiries of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century writer who toured the U.S. and gave us Democracy in America. But Women Want More's research raised doubts, and the questions BusinessWeek put to the authors about it have prompted an amended version of the book that could be in stores, according to publisher HarperCollins, within days of the first printing.

The book's main conclusion is that as more women balance a job with child-rearing, they struggle to find free time. Women, they conclude from their survey, are happiest in their youth and old age and most unhappy during the long and busy part in between. Companies that figure out ways to save those female customers a few extra minutes will earn a disproportionate amount of the women's business. That's hardly an enlightening point: Companies have marketed time-saving devices to women for decades.

But then, most of the book's conclusions tilt toward the obvious. One is that women like clothing that flatters them (a preference called "silhouette management" and "best-feature optimization"). Another is that women won't pay prices they think are too high (shoppers use a "personal value calculus"). And we are told a majority of pet-owning women like their pets.

Back to the quality of the research. A description of the British department store Selfridges in 1909 matches almost word-for-word a Wikipedia entry about the store's founder, Harry Gordon Selfridge. When asked, the authors responded via e-mail that the passage was "slightly rewritten from [the] Wikipedia entry," but they say they also consulted other sources.

A Google (GOOG)-assisted survey of the book turns up other oddities. In a section on Japan, the authors discuss Nagata Mitsuko, described as a 29-year-old in Tokyo with a degree in French literature who feels pressured to marry. This character appears to be drawn—without attribution—from a paper by anthropologist Karen Kelsky, published nine years ago in the journal Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context. In fact, the "Mitsuko" in the journal article is a pseudonym for a woman interviewed in 1993. The authors say their Mitsuko is a composite character.

Elsewhere, Women Want More has footnotes that mystify more than they clarify. One vignette describes "Ashanti Vree," a retiree thinking about starting a personal shopping business. A footnote cites a New York Times blog. The words describing the retiree in the book are almost verbatim from the blog, except that the name "Ashanti Vree" is substituted wherever blogger Marci Alboher referred to "my mom." Alboher's mother is not named Ashanti Vree.

An honest error, say the authors. In the second printing, they say, they plan to remove the pseudonym and give credit for the quotes to Alboher. The authors say they'll rename Mitsuko to avoid confusion with Kelsky's interviewee, rewrite the Selfridges passage, and explain which women are real, which have pseudonyms, and which are composites, among other changes.

Fair enough. Still, these kinds of glitches, on top of the unimaginative analysis that runs through much of Women Want More, add up to a disappointing performance by Silverstein and Sayre, two senior executives at a respected consulting firm.

With John Cady

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