If Women are the driving force behind consumerism, why is retail designed for men?

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By Dr Sarah Montano and Dr Inci Toral
Department of Marketing

Historically, International Women’s Day celebrates the working women’s suffrage to gain equal rights with men. Is it only the working women who suffered from inequality? As Caroline Perez notes we live in a world for men and designed by men! We ask:

  • Have you ever struggled to use your phone, as the screen is too large?
  • Have you wondered why your pink razors cost more than the blue ones?
  • Have you ever struggled to push the pram between racks in a department store?
  • Why do baby trousers have pockets and yet why do women’s trousers lack useful pockets?

On IWD 2023 with the core theme of “Embrace Equity” and “equal opportunities are no longer enough we discuss why retail appears to be designed for men, and what we can do to challenge this. We find the default male approach interesting in retail, as in fact women are both the primary drivers of retail consumption decisions and spending, whilst forming the majority of low paid retail employees.

Did you know that women drive 70% of consumer spending and make the majority of household purchasing decisions? Indeed, Forbes argue that if you want to know what marketing is doing and where it will go – follow women! LVMH have also accepted that they get their inspirations for their designs from the streets that are full of women trying to get by through their daily chores. In 2009, the Harvard Business Review even argued that women drive the economy with a spending power double that of countries such as India and China. This increase in spending power has arisen over the last century by the increase in women gaining an education and their entry into the workplace, thanks to the suffragettes. The multiplier effect is particularly influential, as women are more likely to act as carers and buy for or influence family members and are thus the gatekeeps of household spending.

Given that women have such power, it is surprising that retail activity is male centric. Often we feel patronised, frustrated that products do not meet our needs or are actually dangerous for women. In fact, Australian research suggests that a lack of female crash test dummies may be a key reason why women are more likely to be injured and hospitalised after a road traffic accident. On a lighter note, Bic launched a range of pens “for her” and the reviews on Amazon illustrate the frustration that women feel with products and the patronising response from brands. Even more ‘responsible’ brands like Brewdog were criticised as putting up a marketing stunt when they launched their Pink IPA “for girls.”

Alongside this, female consumer power women also form the majority of retail employees, with the wholesale and retail sector the sector with the second most women employees in the UK (14%). Despite this, there is also a pay gap to consider – with median weekly earnings for female employees working full-time £543 as of April 2020, compared to £619 for male full-time employees. During the COVID-19 pandemic women were also more likely to lose their retail jobs, as we saw notable retail failures such as Debenhams and TopShop subject employees to even heavier workloads while working from home, taking care of the household and supplying the family while everything was closed down. An article written by McKinsey Co for  IWD 2021 sheds light on women’s struggles during COVID-19, which led to larger numbers than men in terms of opting out of the workforce. Add to that the concern about sustainability and the increasing awareness of the impact of environmental damage to the planet.

So, given women hold the decision and spending power, and are more likely to be employed in retail, what can we do to change retail for the better?

Women are instrumental in using spending power to seek out brands that are more responsible and meet their needs. With busy lives and households gatekeeping them, women are seeking out brands that offer convenience and meet their needs. Great examples of female centric brands are Third Love that make bras in ½ sizes and BeautyBlender founder Rea Anna Silva who changed the very way we apply make-up. Women are also driving the key trend of second-hand shopping by shopping in charity shops and using apps such as Vinted.

As women we have power – we have the power to create, invent and change company practice – we have the power to change the world – let’s use it!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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