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A World of Women

Debra Aho Williamson
A World of Women Debra Aho Williamson

In its early days, the internet was a man's world. As late as 1997, males constituted as much as 65 percent of all internet users. But the imbalance changed quickly: By 2000, adult women represented 49 percent of the US Internet population, according to research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And in 2002, the total number of adult women online surpassed the number of men online in the US.

By 2004, females made up 51.6 percent of the US online population, according to eMarketer estimates. That closely resembled the US population at large, where 51 percent of the population is female.

The ratio of females to males in the general population is expected to hold steady at least through 2008, but that won’t be the case on the internet.  Cultural, societal and internet business trends are combining to shift the balance more firmly toward women. Because of these factors, eMarketer projects that the female majority online will become more pronounced over the next five years.

The increasing presence of women online will have a profound effect on content, commerce and marketing. Possibly the most significant impact will be on online retailing. In the offline world, women are said to influence more than three-quarters of household expenditures. That level of influence may not have been fully felt online yet, but it will be -- soon.

Some studies suggest that women already are responsible for the majority of online purchases. As of 2003, women accounted for 60 percent of total online spending, according to Goldman, Sachs & Co., Harris Interactive and Nielsen//NetRatings.

Research from BizRate.com shows a steady increase in the percentage of online purchases made by women. 

Holiday shopping is another area where women dominate online. In research done by Pew Internet & American Life Project in 2001 and 2002, women represented close to 60 percent of US online holiday shoppers. (Pew did not repeat the research in succeeding years.)

There are several indicators that point toward women taking on an even greater role in online shopping.

If 2002 was the starting gate for women to go online in greater numbers, then 2006 may be the year the online shopping floodgates open. The longer someone is online, the more likely he or she is to shop online, according to the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future. The percentage of people who buy online nearly doubles at the four-year mark.  

Historically, many of the things women buy most often have been the hardest to sell online. Apparel, shoes, cosmetics, groceries -- these are infinitely more difficult to merchandise online than books or computer software.

However, there are signs that that is changing. Apparel was projected to be the largest online shopping category in total revenue during the 2004 holiday season, according to research by Goldman, Sachs & Co., Harris Interactive and Nielsen//NetRatings.

The jewelry/watches product category was the fastest growing category in online retail sales last year, according to comScore Networks. Other categories with appeal to women -- flowers, greeting cards and gifts, and home & garden -- also had strong increases.

One area that bears close attention is online grocery shopping, which despite many efforts has so far captured only a minimal amount of traction. Since women are the primary grocery shoppers in US households (85 percent of women surveyed by Vertis Inc. in 2004 said they do at least 60 percent of the grocery shopping), one can assume that if the online grocery channel takes off, it will be women driving the growth.

According to an eMarketer analysis of data Forrester Research, the food/beverage product category will be the fastest-growing ecommerce category between 2004 and 2010, with revenues rising 280 percent. Growth is also projected to be strong in other female-dominated categories such as home products, flowers, jewelry and apparel.

How can marketers and online retailers capture the attention of the growing female majority?

"Women seem to be very, very focused on having what they need when they need it -- out of a new-found pragmatism and out of a fundamental reality: They don't have enough time to get done what they want and need to do," Marian Salzman, a trend strategist who works with ad agency JWT, told eMarketer. "And when it comes to so many of their pursuits, they want it straightforward simple and now. 'Now' is the operative phrase for women, but on their terms, when and where they want it, their way."

For online retailers, the challenge will be to develop shopping tools that mimic -- or ideally improve upon -- the offline shopping experience. For marketers, there is an opportunity to take advantage of women's strong use of email -- women are a crucial vector in word of mouth marketing. The key in all marketing messages, however, will be to develop a voice and attitude that allows females to feel like they are "in the know" and not just "being told."
This article is drawn from “Women Online in the U.S.,” a new eMarketer report. Ms. Williamson is a senior analyst for eMarketer.

eMarketer publishes data, analysis and market projections focusing on e-business, online marketing and emerging technology. Founded in 1996, eMarketer aggregates, filters, organizes and analyzes data from more than 1700 research firms, consultancies and government agencies around the globe.

Starbucks, which has an audience segment that is affluent as well as environmentally active, started as a coffee roaster and retailer in Seattle in 1971, and became more like the coffeehouse we know today in 1987. Starbucks prides itself on serving the best coffee in the world, while maintaining its ecologically conscious roots.

Starbucks takes Earth Day (and the Earth Month of April) seriously. The website has links to Earth Day activities, as well as a Planet Green Game online. Consumers can also win a trip to Costa Rica with Starbucks and the Earthwatch Institute in support of sustainable farming.

In 1999, Starbucks moved beyond refreshments when it purchased Hear Music, which started out as a catalog company in 1990. The Hear Music brand includes movies ("Akeelah & the Bee"), books (Mitch Album's "For One More Day") and music (albums, satellite, iTunes). In March, Starbucks announced the launch of the Hear Music record label, for which they will partner with Concord Music Group. Paul McCartney was the label's first musician to release an album.

By expanding its product into the artistic areas that a niche of high-end coffee drinkers appreciate, Starbucks has given its customer base more of what they are willing to buy. And its website gives additional information -- music samples, podcasts about the books, message boards, et cetera -- and promotes an active environment with a coffeehouse feel.

Much like the candy-covered chocolate, the M&M's site is addictive. You can go to becomeanmm.com, create a customized M&M that looks like you and then put your M&M's alter-ego into a movie or photo. Other M&M's-related activities include the M&M's entertainment report  and the "Shrek the Third" ransom game. Sure, this falls more into the category of promotion than niche. But any website that taps into the child within the consumer is doing something right.

More niche-specific is M&M's involvement in the racing scene. Although Masterfoods, M&M's parent company, has been a sponsor for more than 15 years, it has steadily increased its participation. Branding doesn't get much easier than M&M's-colored race cars, especially with the recent resurgence in racing fascination. In 2006, M&M's became the Official Chocolate of NASCAR. This year, joining M&M's as primary sponsor of the No. 38 entry, is the Snickers Brand, which will also serve as primary sponsor for the No. 88 Team.

The website is any racing fan's dream, with stats, photo galleries and a countdown clock to the next race. There's also a store where consumers can buy diecast racing cars.


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