Power of the Purse

Author Fara Warner Attests to the Wallop of Women’s Wallets

by Starshine Roshell

power_purse.jpgAll she wanted was a decent running shoe. In training for a marathon, journalist Fara Warner sprinted into a Nike store with money to burn. But it turns out a female consumer and a powerhouse retailer aren’t always a perfect fit. Until six years ago, Warner explained, “Nike built all of their running shoes off a man’s foot and simply made it smaller. Women’s feet aren’t just smaller than men’s; they’re completely different. They’re shaped differently; they perform differently.”

A business writer for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, she wondered why a Fortune 500 company like Nike could be so blind to her needs as a consumer. “How can they spend so much energy marketing to teenage boys?” asked Warner, who speaks at a Restaurant NU reception on Monday, October 30. “How can they not understand how much money I have to spend as a thirtysomething woman?”

Sure, there was a time when household-heading men were the customers worth wooing, when there weren’t enough women in the workforce to bother vying for their dollars. But today, as Warner points out, the shoe is on the other foot. In her new book, The Power of the Purse, she explains that women now make 80 percent of all buying decisions in this country, and shows how smart companies have begun courting their $7 trillion in purchasing power. “We don’t live in 1950s America, and we shouldn’t be marketing as though we do,” said Warner, 40, during a recent interview from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Demographic and social data show that women have changed: the growth of women at executive levels, in sports, the way we think about motherhood.”

Some companies have recognized the change and used it to their advantage: Home Depot offers “Do-It-Herselfer” workshops for women who are “power partners” in their homes. McDonald’s created salads with fancy ingredients like edamame to appeal to women as diners rather than merely as drivers who pay for the Happy Meals. And DeBeers Diamonds turned its “right-hand ring” concept into a $4 billion industry by appealing to women’s desire for bling, regardless of their marital status.

But it’s a “slow revolution,” says Warner, adding that even companies as big as General Motors still treat women like a minority marketing group. “We are not a minority group and we are not a homogeneous market,” she said. “One ad campaign that works for me is not going to work for my roommate. I love to drive, and I really think cars are beautiful — but not all women are like that.”

Santa Barbarans in particular might find Warner’s take on philanthropy useful. Whereas women have always been involved in charitable causes at the bake-sale level, they now control enough wealth to change the world. “Now that we’re making far more money, how do we use it to effect change?” she asked, adding that nonprofits should recognize the different ways men and women approach philanthropy. She explained, “Men see it as reputation-building, a way to say, ‘I have arrived.’ Women want to make a difference. They want something to happen. It’s more personal.”

Writing the book made Warner more cognizant of where she spends her money. “I’m willing to give companies the benefit of the doubt if I see them doing something that shows respect to me as a consumer,” she said, noting that she wound up buying her running shoes at a women’s athletic store called See Jane Run. “Every time you plunk down a dollar someplace, it’s a vote for a company that does things right,” Warner affirmed, and women can encourage companies to pay attention to them by speaking up when they like or dislike something a business is doing. “As women, we tend not to want to say anything. We tend not to want to make waves because we get labeled as aggressive,” she explained. “Well, you know what? Too bad. It’s better than not getting what you want.”

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