Navigating the gender divide in retail sales: Successful Selling - Feb 2016


By Sandy Smith

For years now, the dealer base within the flooring business has been comprised primarily of male salespeople selling to female homeowners. And it’s often been suggested that this model is flawed, since the men are more focused on the mechanics of the installation than the fashion nuances of interior furnishings.


Women are different from men. You may have noticed that. Nowhere is it more true than in the expectations and process women use to make purchase decisions. If your business involves sales—and whose doesn’t?—maybe you should pay attention to this. 

You may be thinking that reading up on women’s purchasing habits is something you might get around to at some point in time when your obligations are fewer, your schedule more open, and you are in a better position to take on a little light reading about an interesting side issue. 

Well, consider that, according to a Nielsen Insights post entitled U.S. Women Control the Purse Strings, “Women have tremendous spending power in America today—and it’s growing. Market estimates about their total purchasing prowess varies, ranging anywhere from $5 trillion to $15 trillion annually.” 

Research by Faith Popcorn, founder and CEO of marketing consulting firm BrainReserve, revealed that the three largest economies on earth are: third, the American male; second, the nation of Japan; and first, the American female. She adds that the American female makes 80% of all purchasing decisions in the household, 70% of the women work outside the household, and salespeople sell to women 81% of the time. 

In a Harvard Business Review article called “The Female Economy,” authors Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre say unequivocally, “Women now drive the world economy.”

In spite of this staggering reality, few marketing firms have devoted the attention required to determine how to reach women and persuade them to buy. In 2008, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which does international consulting, conducted a comprehensive survey of more than 12,000 women to find out how they felt they were being served by a variety of businesses. The results of the survey were shocking. BCG summarized as follows: “Women feel vastly underserved. Despite the remarkable strides in market power and social position that they have made in the past century, they still appear to be undervalued in the marketplace and underestimated in the workplace. Few companies have responded to their need for time-saving solutions or for products and services designed specifically for them.”

In one ill-fated attempt to reach women, Dell launched a campaign to sell to women a new lightweight laptop computer. The firm created a webpage called Della and described it as a “very special site for women.” Dell touted the laptop’s features, including a range of feminine colors, trendy notebook bags, and software allowing users to track appointments, count calories expended in gym workouts, and store recipes.

The reaction was swift and brutal. Dell instituted a feedback feature on the Della site, and many who posted said the site was insulting to women. They suggested that Dell assumed women were incapable of grasping the technical benefits and advantages of a notebook computer and resorted instead to offering women lightweight applications for homemakers or socialites. Joanna Stern, a columnist for Laptop magazine, said in her column that “the stereotypes reinforced in this campaign are appalling. Women ARE tech-savvy.”

Is it any wonder that business consultant Tom Peters stated, “This women’s thing is not the latest fad, but the latest business opportunity on the planet”? With this kind of data, one would think that sales forces in practically every industry would offer educational training courses aimed at better understanding the conversational and buying styles of men and women.

About a year ago, a psychologist friend of mine introduced me to the writings of sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, PhD and author of the bestselling book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. 

After reading much of her work, I began sharing with clients her theories as to how female sales professionals sell to male clients and how male sales professionals sell to female clients. At a national sales meeting, I divided my audience into two groups, men on one end of the room and women on the other, each with a flipchart to record the results of their exercise. I told the women’s group to assume that they were the head of a sales force and that their entire sales staff were men and all their clients were women. I asked them to create a list of do’s and don’ts in calling on the female clients. Then I set up the same exercise for the men, except that all their sales force were women and all their clients were men. 

The results were interesting and, perhaps, predictable. The men completed the exercise with their list on a single flip chart pad in 15 minutes. They then began joking among themselves about how long the exercise was taking their female colleagues. The female sales team took 35 minutes to complete the exercise and had seven flip chart pages taped neatly to the wall. Obviously the women felt they had a great deal of guidance to offer salesmen who were approaching women. 

I have repeated this exercise at different venues over the past couple of years. So what guidance did these women offer their salesmen?

• Take female consumers seriously. Women customers desire to be valued as intelligent and financially secure consumers.
• Slow down your pace; be patient and avoid the “quick-fix” sales approach. Women want to shop, make comparisons and take fewer risks than men.
• Provide detailed information in conversational form.
• Ask more, tell less.
• Listen empathically beyond facts to feeling.
• Offer women what they want and not what you think they should buy.
• Include information about people, process and service as well as details on the product. 
• Be cautious about pushing advice too hard or too far.
• Get a female mentor. 

Without a doubt, learning how to successfully market to women is a topic worthy of attention. The Nielsen research concludes that, “Considering the spending power that women wield in today’s marketplace, it’s particularly important for advertising and marketing messaging to resonate with them.” 

The bottom line is that this topic screams for attention by today’s savvy marketers in all segments of the marketplace—financial planning, automotive sales, groceries, fitness, beauty and, yes, flooring. Some companies will take the time and spend the resources to learn how to do the job effectively. Others will not. But by fully understanding and appreciating the ways that women and men differ when it comes to buying and conducting business, that alone becomes a competitive advantage.

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus