Too Many Businesses Don’t Know What Women Want

Photograph by Gallery Stock

What do women want? That is a question as old as Adam and Eve.

According to recent surveys, many men are clueless—and businesses may be even more in the dark than men.

I’m being a bit facetious here. But the data collected over the past few years indicate quite clearly that the marketplace isn’t meeting the needs of today’s women, despite their rising incomes, increased purchasing power, educational and professional advances, and the fact that they make the majority of household buying decisions.

First, some salient facts:

Five years from now, the combined annual earnings of the world’s working women are expected to be in the $18 trillion to $19 trillion range, about 10 percent higher than today’s entire U.S. GDP. That’s a 50 percent increase from today.

In the U.S. alone, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, women made up 46.9 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2012, including more than half of all management, professional, and related positions.

The quiet revolution that was “taking place” when my colleague Michael J. Silverstein and his co-author, Katharine Sayre, were writing their 2009 book, Women Want More, is today’s reality.

You would think that business would be all over this demographic sea change. But recent Boston Consulting Group research, including an in-depth survey this summer of nearly 7,800 women in 13 countries, indicates that many companies are struggling to come up with the products and services women are looking for.

The research found that women are highly dissatisfied with many available products and services, which fail to meet their needs. Globally, their biggest complaint is with health care, home services—such as cleaning, repairs, and remodeling—and, surprisingly, work apparel. Five years ago, when a similar survey was conducted for Silverstein’s book, they were most dissatisfied with financial services, health care, and consumer durables, such as cars.

Silverstein’s takeaways from the survey were these: 1) Women are increasingly well off and very profitable customers; 2) they are willing to pay more across many categories for products and services that meet their needs; 3) as they become increasingly time constrained, there is significant untapped value in providing them with a means to save time, and 4) they will trade money for time savings.

Companies that understand this, he explained, will be rewarded with sales growth, customer loyalty, and market share. Two examples he cited were Gerber, which continues to expand its product line based on research into what mothers with infant children want, and Procter & Gamble, whose “Swiffer” products have made dusting and sweeping the floor much easier and quicker.

So what do women want? The short answer is: They want high-quality, reasonably priced products and services that will help them manage their busy lives. That’s not a lot to ask, but a lot of companies apparently are coming up short. Those companies that invest in efforts to meet their needs will reap the rewards.

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