Yes, men shop -- but they call it 'research'

New technology, demands on time bring guys to mall

April 11, 2004|By Judy Hevrdejs | Judy Hevrdejs,Chicago Tribune

Eric Brown disdains shopping. "It's just not enjoyable to me," said the 28-year-old accountant while toting several shopping bags along Chicago's Michigan Avenue. "When I'm out shopping, I basically know what I want to get. I rush in. I buy it. I get out."

Conventional wisdom holds that guys hate to shop. Just ask generations of men. Ask academics and marketers who study such things.

Ask shopping guru Paco Underhill, whose new book, Call of the Mall, is studded with man vs. shopping anecdotes, including this: The time men spent shopping for trousers "was roughly identical to what men devote to shopping for beer in convenience stores."

If guys hate shopping so much, then why has mega-magazine publisher Conde Nast launched Cargo, sibling to its popular shopping glossy Lucky? Why is Fairchild Publications prepping Vitals, another shopping mag for guys, for a September debut? There's no easy answer, of course. But those who study shopping say a number of social, cultural and economic factors are challenging the "men hate to shop" notion.

For instance:

* Men's definition of shopping is now open to interpretation. What guys call "research" can look suspiciously like shopping.

* Time-crunched modern life has put the burden of shopping on both men and women.

* An avalanche of products geared to men is demanding their attention.

"Regardless of social class, ethnicity, age -- men say they hate to shop," said Sharon Zukin, a City University of New York sociology professor and author of the book Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture.

"Yet when you ask them deeper questions, it turns out they like to shop. Men generally like to shop for books, music -- both instruments and CDs -- and hardware -- both tools and high-tech hardware," she added. "But if you ask them about the shopping they do for books or music, they'll say, 'Well, that's not shopping. That's research.' "

This doesn't surprise Cargo magazine's editor in chief, Ariel Foxman.

Guys don't generally think about "getting together with friends to grab lunch and chat over racks and shelves of cute, new merchandise," he said, via e-mail.

"But if you define shopping, like many men do, as researching, experimenting with product, value-hunting, talking with friends about their own buying experiences and rewarding oneself by carefully spending hard-earned cash, [then] I believe that you'd find more men engaged in those sorts of activities than women."

Social event or game?

In other words -- and with the caveat that there will be exceptions -- what men and women call "buying things" and how they approach that task are different. Women will browse several 10,000-square-foot stores in search of the perfect party dress.

Men will browse 100 Internet sites in search of the perfect digital camcorder.

Women see shopping as a social event. Men see it as a mission -- as a game to be won.

"There is a maleness that is a competitive, aggressive type trait that does transfer over to shopping and we don't see that in women as much," said Mary Ann McGrath, a marketing professor at Loyola University Chicago's Graduate School of Business who has studied gender differences and shopping behaviors.

"Men are frequently shopping to win," she said. "They want to get the best deal. They want to get the best one, the last one, and if they do that it makes them very happy."

When women shop, "they're doing it in ways that they want everybody to be happy," added McGrath. "They're kind of shopping for love."

So which came first? Men's lack of interest in shopping or the apparent lack of interest by some retailers in creating stores alluring to men?

According to Zukin, men did much of the shopping until the end of the 19th century. In the middle of the 20th century, when they became the principal wage earners of their family, they shifted the burden of shopping to their wives.

Some retailers responded by focusing store design on female shopping styles.

Women put together outfits and think about the context of a room, say, when choosing a sofa. A guy rarely thinks outfits, and to choose a sofa, he may flop on a couple before judging one a winner.

Pull of technology

That may be changing. Men and women are both time-crunched, with less in-store browse-time available. For some men -- particularly those under 40 -- their relationship with shopping and malls is different from their granddaddies'.

"For many men under age 40, the mall is a real place. It's the first place that many of them got dropped off from their suburban homes," said the 52-year-old Underhill during a Chicago visit. "It was the first place that they weren't under some form of direct supervision."

And the over-40 crowd?

"They are replacement shoppers as opposed to grazing shoppers," he said. "They're going to places that are able to package the apparel goods that they want in an environment that they feel comfortable in."

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