Woman Power: The Rise of the Sheconomy

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

  • Photo-Illustration by Hugh Kretschmer for TIME

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    As these things often do, the changes start at home. A recent Pew study of 30-to-44-year-olds showed that when a husband is the primary or sole breadwinner, household spending decisions are divided roughly equally. He makes about a third of them, she makes a third, and they make a third jointly. But in the 22% of households studied in which the wife earned more, she made more than twice as many decisions as her husband about where the money would go. The more money women earn, the exponentially more money they manage.

    And women are increasingly making the calls where men have traditionally held sway. In 2007, women were $90 billion worth of the $200 billion consumer-electronics business. They're $105 billion of the $256 billion home-improvement market. They're 44% of NFL fans.

    Given this power shift, few indeed are the industries that aren't trying to lure the female dollar, even formerly deeply stubbled fields like computers, cars and financial services. Harley-Davidson has a Women Riders section on its website. This year, Cuban cigar manufacturer Habanos launched the Julieta, a smaller, milder cigar aimed specifically at women. Kodak, in a stroke of nomenclature genius, has a chief listening officer on staff.

    How Not to Woo Women

    But for an auto shop, seducing women is not a trivial matter. What is Midas supposed to do, grow geraniums in the discarded rims? In fact, according to Rosenfeldt's research, women didn't mind if the shop was grimy or the mechanic grease-covered. They didn't even necessarily need women behind the counter. They just wanted to get to know the guy fixing their car. And it turned out the guys quite liked doing that too. So the head office came up with a reasonably straightforward plan, a getting-it-right program: G.E.T. Greet. Explain. Thank. Nothing too fancy. "We sent our franchisees these books," says Rosenfeldt. "It seemed so obvious to us. The data is plentiful: Do it and get more business."

    The idea went over like a tofu bar at a truck stop. Rosenfeldt estimates that about a third of the franchisees read it, a third filed it and a third "just thought it was stupid." The head office tried persuading, arm-twisting and rewarding. No dice. The women-friendly commercials the company tested didn't fare much better.

    Midas isn't the only company to have stumbled as it attempted to lure women. Dell took a similarly girlie approach in May 2009 with its Della website, which in dreamy, soft-focus scenes hawked "cute" netbooks and laptops and offered tech tips on how to find recipes online and track calories. You know how computers get fried if you spill liquid on them? So many gallons of Internet Hatorade were poured on that site that within 10 days, Dell had to shut Della down entirely.

    "One of the big mistakes companies make is assuming women are all about the warm and fuzzy, and they're not," says Marti Barletta, author of three books about marketing to women and the widely acknowledged chief rabbi of the Sheconomy. "They want all the same things men do and then some."

    To appeal to women, the changes in a product or service or even the way a company is run have to be more profound. "Women have a more comprehensive decision process," says Barletta. A guy, she suggests, is a targeted shopper. He will book the first hotel room he finds at his price point. For a woman, the secondary characteristics are key: the gym, the spa, the sustainability, the thread count. Get the guy right and you've made a sale; get the woman right and you have a customer.

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