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Women Taking Charge in ‘Female Economy'
Advertising Week NY '08: It might take government intervention to save the country, but it's women who are making the personal financial decisions to protect themselves and their families.
Posted Sep 29, 2008
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NEW YORK — Like many other women, Lee Woodruff doesn't want to downsize her closet. But to moderate a panel here at Advertising Week about "Doing Business During the Age of the Female Economy," the ABC journalist would be hard-pressed not to recognize that money is going in a different direction. "The good days are over," said Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer at public relations firm Porter Novelli, referring specifically to the recent crisis in financial services. But good days or bad, panelists declared that women are the ones controlling America's household wallets, with some reports indicating that their influence reaches as high as 80 percent to 90 percent of sales.

Still, as budgets get tighter, even purse-string-controlling women are trading down, exchanging name brands for generic labels. Moreover, they're cleaning out their closets and selling what they have. To encourage this trend, electronics megastore Best Buy has introduced a policy to pay for consumers' used equipment, even if the items were originally purchased from another retailer. Sites such as Etsy.com have a predominantly female user base numbering into the hundreds of thousands -- mostly college graduates and stay-at-home mothers -- buying and selling handcrafted wares. According to Salzman, women aren't just buyers anymore. "Retailers need to empower the retailer in us," she added.

Luckily, technology is making the pinch a lot less painful. Instead of a family vacation, families are opting instead for a "staycation." Women are expanding their kitchens and purchasing equipment for an entertainment studio to enhance the family experience at home. Service opportunities like Best Buy's Geek Squad help people make use of equipment they bought years ago but were never motivated to install.

Families are getting bigger, the panel noted, as extended members come together under one roof for mutual support -- or to weather difficult economic times. In addition, neighborhood gatherings are becoming popular again, bringing back a sense of community that some experts find reminiscent of the 1950s. Women are forming "intimate tribes," taking group shopping trips to discount stores such as Costco.

While men have been typically more embarrassed by financial shortcomings, panelists suggested that women have exhibited egos that are less fragile. Women also seem willing to take advantage of all opportunities that can help them be more efficient with their dollar. Helping others "is like wearing a badge of honor," said Tracy Lovatt, executive vice president of behavioral planning of advertising agency BBDO and cofounder of Omnicom Group's female-focused consultancy, G23.

Shopping trips are being cut back in favor of other means of escape that don't rely on fossil-fuel-burning transportation. Media, Salzman said, is now a woman's go-to escape. Less than 25 percent of women think they have "me-time," according to Lovatt, emphasizing that media such as magazines are, contrary to popular belief, still in demand; in fact, she added, print media remains by far the preferred source for advice. Women are also finding solace in giving themselves "little treats" that make them feel good, she said -- whether it's a beauty accessory or an ecofriendly bag that combines purpose with purchase.

The consumer marketplace has historically been targeted at males, but roles are shifting. In order to serve women, experts said, companies have to ask women. Julie Gilbert, a senior vice president at Best Buy and overseer of the company's WoLF (Women's Leadership Forum) program, told attendees that Best Buy is committed to "reinventing the entire company with the lens of the female." To that end, she said, the retailer has focus teams that are derived from roughly 3,000 volunteering women who meet on a monthly basis and have one question to answer: What change do you want to see?

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