Woman Power: The Rise of the Sheconomy

How women are using their rapidly increasing spending power to impel changes in the way companies operate

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Photo-Illustration by Hugh Kretschmer for TIME

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And as customers, women have a weapon they haven't had before: online social networks. A cross between a girls' night out and the mother of all organizing tools, these networks have given women the kind of muscle that can be a blessing or a bloodbath for those it's flexed upon. Of the more than 500 million people on Facebook, women do 62% of the sharing. It makes sense that, given their disposition to tend and befriend, women would take to online social networks, but until it happened, nobody was quite aware of the implications.

Johnson & Johnson found out the painful way, with a 2008 Motrin campaign that followed the inner monologue of a mom toting her infant around in a baby carrier. It "totally makes me look like an official mom," she notes in a Web video before agonizing over the backache it gives her. Some mothers felt belittled. Overnight they formed a group, and @motrinmoms gave J&J a Twitter headache as emotions escalated. The company apologized and canceled the ad.

Bring On the Horse

Then there's Isaiah Mustafa, the hunky Old Spice guy. Rarely has a campaign for a men's product been more gynocentric, from its parodying of the sexist way women are often portrayed in such commercials to its mockery of the idealized modern male partner, a hot man who can bake cakes and build a kitchen and get two tickets to anything — while on a horse! After a couple of commercials, Mustafa took to YouTube to give customized video responses to tweeters' requests, including a wedding proposal. You could talk to Mustafa, and he would talk back. He wasn't a celebrity endorsing a product; he was your friend. It's relationship marketing with an actual relationship, even if it's a put-on one. The result: in the past six months, sales of Old Spice body-wash products have risen 27%.

Midas' retooled approach was oddly similar: change the balance of power in the relationship in favor of customers. Let them in on the process. The company instituted a program called the Midas Way. Using Philadelphia as its pilot city, it personalized the business, making Midas stores, ironically, more like dentists' offices, with appointments and checkups and lots of explaining. Employees of Midas stores, including mechanics, were offered training. Smile, they were told, even when talking on the phone. Most of all, make sure every customer who comes in, even just for the $21.99 oil-change-and-tire-rotation special, is shown exactly what will be done on a checklist. "The benchmark for success is, we ask the customer: Would you be able to explain what happened at Midas to your mother?" says Rosenfeldt.

While it's still early, and the auto business is still tough, the results are marked. In Philadelphia, Midas' retail sales are up an average 13% since December, when the program was instituted. "Some stores completely did a 180, literally, to the month that we started this program," says Rosenfeldt. Cautious that it might be a fluke, Midas tried the program in St. Louis and got similarly encouraging results. The Midas Way is now being rolled out to the rest of the U.S. The women's input "spawned a whole different way we execute our retail model," says Rosenfeldt.

Over at Best Buy, Gilbert threw it to the WOLFs. She organized women from the stores, the head office and among the customers into Women's Leadership Forum groups. Each WOLF pack (employees from one area) or WOLF den (employees and sometimes customers from one store) or group of omega WOLFs (customers) was given a specific problem to solve. They discussed how new stores should look (more like living rooms), how to monetize teen shoppers in the mobile-phone stores (offer cute accessories to customize a phone's look) and what to print on washing-machine swing tags (less about cubic feet and more about how many sheets it can handle). They got to present their solutions to company executives, and they didn't hold back. Gilbert has since left the company to market the WOLF concept to other industries, but Best Buy has kept the program going. "The demand we have for packs and dens and omegas is almost more than we can handle right now," says Liz Haesler, vice president of home life and trend at Best Buy. "It's translating to significant financial results."

All this in a business environment in which just 3% of FORTUNE 500 companies are headed up by women and 15.2% of their corporate directors are female. It has proved a stubborn ceiling to crack, even with hard data from Pepperdine University, Catalyst and McKinsey overwhelmingly suggesting that businesses with more women at the top are better off.

As Meg Whitman recently proved, dollars can't always buy power. But they can often buy change. Wives' education and earning power have changed the relationship they have with their family finances as well as their families. It's not his money she's spending; it's their money — or hers. Similarly, the one-way relationship between consumers and the mainstream media has been overturned by social networking. Women — and men too — don't have to wait for Big Media's attention; they're taking their stories straight to the public, and the media are following them. Midas and Best Buy, after discovering that steering their business toward women is less like changing the oil and more like reinventing the lightbulb, transformed their relationships with their customers, letting them see more of the guts of the operation and weigh in on changes. If women can't get a place in the corporate inner sanctum, then they're just going to start running companies from the outside — where the money is.

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