Are women natural shoppers, or deceived by marketing?
When it comes to implementing policies concerning social welfare – for instance the measures taken in recent years by the Rwandan government to improve nutrition – the decision-makers will most often target women. The philosophy is simple: contrary to men, if you can reach the women, you reach the entire family.
Policy-makers did not invent that approach, though – it probably dates back to the time when people first started selling, or maybe even bartering, things. “If you want to sell your products and make money, target women and their children,” one Rwandan businessman argued recently after he had successfully convinced a woman to buy some ornament for her child.
So are women indeed easier targets for marketing?
Mention the word “shopping,” for instance, and people all over the world will instantly think about women. Lots of research has been done to try and understand the psychology behind the apparent love women have for shopping and the results, although equivocal, tend to agree that it’s just something that is part of them.
According to Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Vermont, there are socio-biologists who say that women are linked to shopping in the same way that men are linked to sports. “Often women’s behavior is explained by something like the ‘shopping gene:’ men are seen as the ‘hunters’ (conquering stuff) and women are the ‘gatherers’ (finding stuff),” she writes.
For businesspeople, that rings true. One shop keeper, who identified himself as just Kim, said he believes that is the case. “Men love their money and they definitely don’t like to expose it,” says Kim, a shopkeeper in a clothes store, adding that women’s behavior can be described as impulse shopping. “When a woman goes to the shop to buy sugar, she ends up going home with a bag full of other products she says are needed.”
And for Stephen Tumusiime, sales manager at Inyange Industries, it is clear that every woman in the world loves shopping, and they are only limited by their purchasing power. “I think it is mostly due to the fact that they always want to look and feel good,” he says, adding that by the same toke their also want their children to look good.
Many women do agree that sometimes there is no planning in the way they spend their money. “You can leave your house intending to buy groceries, but then on the way you see a dress for yourself or a toy for your child,” Nadia Umutoni admits. “So you end up buying that, and only half of the groceries you wanted.”
It is not surprising then that much of the advertising also targets women. A recent advert from Inyange, for instance, shows a young woman in a pair of trousers several sizes too big. The cause: Inyange’s low-fat milk, thanks to which she clearly shed quite a few kilos.
Tumusiime willingly concedes that the image is no coincidence. “We always have a specific target in our marketing, which in this case are young people of that age group, but especially young ladies as they tend to be sensitive about their looks and size,” he explains.
That is confirmed by Kim of the clothes store, who points out that they have a bigger stock for women and children than for men. “We have much more female customers than male ones,” he says.
Other shopkeepers agree. “A woman will do whatever it takes, spend as much money as she can to look good, whether on clothes, hair products, make up and similar things,” remarks Mugabe, a shop attendant.
Not all women are amused, though, at being the prime target of marketing; they find it taps too much into their insecurities. “At times you feel like the real question behind the ads is if you are good enough as a person,” complains student Rachel Uwera. “Are you pretty enough? Are you stylish enough? Do you really have the right size?”
She is probably not very pleased then by Inyange’s advert, but Stephen Tumusiime points out there is another good reason to use the picture of a woman. “A woman will appeal both to other women and to men, but I think it would be harder to interest women using just a poster that appeals mainly to men,” he explains.
But for Dr. Young-Eisendrath of the University of Vermont, there is also something more sinister at play: deception. She does not believe that shopping (as in “real shopping,” the serious bargain hunting and a whole day of meandering through different shops) is a primordial urge of women. “It began historically, as an offshoot of advertising and commercialism, as a way to encourage women to feel in charge – deceptively inviting them to make choices and decisions of their own,” she argues.
Therefore, the professor accuses retailers of seducing women into buying illusory freedom – a freedom that is in fact no freedom at all, only another form of subjugation. “Sad to say, modern consumerism creates desire but doesn’t satisfy it,” she says.
Student Uwera echoes the same sentiment, saying that it seems that women are always told that what they will buy will make them look better, feel better, be better than what they currently have, which tends to create a cycle that will not be broken – unless, she points out, women are satisfied with the person that they are.