CHICAGO — What do women want? Three presenters at the annual Retail Advertising Conference here tried to answer that question by tapping into women’s thought processes. The conference, held Feb. 6-8 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, was sponsored by the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, an arm of the National Retail Federation.

Mary Lou Quinlan, chief executive officer of Just Ask A Woman, a New York-based retail “brand-building problem solver,” stages talk shows in which women air their gripes about retailers. After interviewing 3,000 women over the course of two years, Quinlan has come up with a top-10 list of what women want retailers to know about them and their shopping habits.

1. I have no time for you. Women start their days early, and spend them juggling children, jobs, husbands and housework, Quinlan said. Yet such overscheduling is their own decision: “Women like to do for others. They’re in control of the calendar,” Quinlan said. How does this translate to retailers? Easy. Is the cashier ready? Or does the customer have to hunt down someone to ring up her order?

2. Why don’t you ask me how I feel? Retailers constantly talk to women, through advertising, by sending catalogs, and by telling her what she can’t do, e.g. returns, exchanges and the like. Women would like retailers to ask them for input. “They have a million ideas,” Quinlan said.

3. I know what I want. Service, friendly help, no matter how she’s dressed, and extras such as home delivery of bulky goods led women’s wish lists.

4. Why are you so frustrating? Stores aren’t especially conducive to shopping, talk-show participants tell Quinlan. Dressing rooms aren’t warm and comfortable. Aisles cannot accommodate strollers. Stores are dirty and in disarray and salespeople are rude and not well versed in the store’s merchandise.

5. I can see right through you. “Women notice details and remember things in a personal way,” Quinlan said. The shocker: Customers eavesdrop on gossiping salespeople, who will often unwittingly expose the store’s dirtiest secrets.

6. I can handle you. Items chosen but not purchased, and left hanging over rounds or at the cash registers are signs that women are fed up.

7. Do you know how much stuff I have?

8. I can get it somewhere else. These two thoughts “shed a harsh light on department stores,” Quinlan said. If a woman can buy a white T-shirt at Target for a quarter of what it would cost at Macy’s, there had better be a good reason for the price differential, she noted.

9. My life is different now. Post-Sept. 11, women think more about their families and spiritual lives. Shopping isn’t in the foreground as much as it used to be.

10. You are just like me. “Associates distance themselves, trying to figure customers out. When they do that, they lose the best thing they have: basic human instinct,” she said.

It all boils down to service, Quinlan said in an interview after her presentation. “From the retailers point of view, it’s about merchandise,” she said. “From [the customers’] point of view, it’s about service, and the personality and the brand persona of the store.”

Down the hall, Debbie Karnowsky and Susan Hanchett of the advertising firm Campbell-Ewald’s W2W Communications Group outlined the five tenets of marketing to women. Like Quinlan, they used video clips of real women to illustrate their points.

W2W doesn’t study women as a whole, but according to different life stages: young and single, 30-something and single, married with young children, married with teenagers and empty nesters. Each group requires a different advertising strategy, they said.

Overall, five tenets should govern marketing efforts to women. First, build a relationship. “Women need to communicate,” Karnowsky said. Women are three times more likely than men to recommend brand names to friends, she said.

Secondly, acknowledge that all women are not alike. “Women are dumped into the 25-54 group without regard to life stage,” Karnowsky said. In reality, women lead multiple lives and should be targeted accordingly.

Thirdly, realize that women use both sides of their brains when processing information. They want facts they can use to make decisions; they will make that decision slowly and methodically.

Next, know that women process advertising differently than men. Metaphors and analogies and imaginative approaches are more likely to capture her attention.

Finally, women want what W2W terms “self-defined balance.” “They’re looking for ways to relax,” and marketers can help them by positioning themselves as problem-solvers and designing time-saving products. Multipurpose beauty products fill the bill, Karnowsky said.

How to accomplish this? “Go where women roam and give them what they want, where and when they want it.”

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