When it comes to retail, the perceived wisdom has always been women like to shop more than men. But that traditional landscape and such binary thoughts are continually being challenged by an increasing dominance of internet-based purchasing. Consumer tastes and their buying habits are fast-adapting for the digital age with online retail spending in 2016 hitting £133bn according to figures from IMRG and Capgemini, up 16% on 2015.
So what does this mean for large companies and incumbents operating within the retail industry? Most experts agree that unless they digitally transform their operations, they face being left behind - but this looks especially true when it comes to mobile-based purchases that appear to differ between the sexes.
In the UK, almost half of eCommerce transactions (48.9%) now take place on mobile devices, up 6% year-on-year, but mobile-friendly websites still lag behind in design, functionality and experience compared to shopping via the desktop equivalent. Much of that growth in retail spending identified above was due to increased shopping via smartphone, but an emerging male vs female trend is backed up by other figures showing the gap between men and women purchasing from their mobile devices was 4%. High-end online retailer Mr Porter has also identified this saying the amount of traffic to its site from men shopping on their phones had doubled in the space of a year.
The retail battle of the sexes
The solution to increasing online shopping revenue is far more complex than just offering a better mobile experience based on gender stereotypes, however. Plenty of historical studies have shown that in-store women like to browse the sprawling clothing, footwear and accessory collections, while men find this style of shopping a mission. They want to get in and out fast and online offers them this opportunity. One UK study found 80% of men prefer to shop alone, exemplifying the solitary online experience they enjoy so much. But can this, or should this, simply be replicated online digitally?
We do know that men have been transformed by the internet, carrying out more research than ever before on what they want to buy, before they buy it. They are now also more willing to take a chance and buy on a whim, a trait retail experts usually attribute to women.
So how do you get male shoppers spending more online? Well the answer could be doing the browsing for them. Sites such as Thread, Enclothed and Chapar offer a free personal shopper/stylist providing recommendations. They can then send out smart and fashionably packed boxes filled with different options and outfits to try on. This journalist from Business Insider UK tried it and says his wardrobe is now better than ever. As this Forbes contributor also suggests, men want fast and easy when it comes to shopping – both offline and online.
This free service would likely be charged at a premium on the high street as it makes the user feel special, but instead it offers it for free, trading off against a potential increase in the amount of purchases they make by allowing them to see what fits or looks right in the privacy of their own home where they feel most comfortable.
Deep data dives may be a key solution
Data is another area where online retail can use digital technologies more. As already suggested, we know the in-store experience of both men and women cannot simply be replicated online. And the issue goes far deeper than just male vs female habits.
Data collected online is increasingly valuable to retailers when analysed correctly. It can be used to deliver a more sophisticated and segmented service, not only considering gender, but also age, ethnicity and regional differences.
Of course, gender is one of the easier customer data attributes to address in a strategic fashion but tackling age and sociodemographic differences within each of these also offers the ability for major boosts in purchase conversion and profit. For example, simple things such as targeting specific advertising online and via Facebook will likely increase purchases.
Data may also prove crucial for converting one sex to buy for another person when browsing online - marking a shift away from online stores that still follow the traditional segmentation into men's, women's and children's departments. This method means the shopper will only ever find something they like for someone else if they make a conscious choice to click into that area.
Instead, useful digital data-based algorithms could pull up suggestions and choices based on an online shopper's profile, if a retailer has taken time to encourage the user to share personal details that are wider and more varied than just their own. Instead they could consider asking them to make personalised suggestions about what partners, friends and family all like, keeping a database of those choices against any key dates such as birthdays and anniversaries.
So what is the digital transformation answer?
More choices and personalised suggestions based on data as well as a less-traditional route user journey to purchase appears to be key. This would prevent people searching specifically for an item and making a purchase in a matter of seconds just for themselves. This in turn could increase the expenditure of all online shoppers and boost the amount of female spend outside of their favoured traditional bricks and mortar.
One of the key stats in this comprehensive research piece suggests women are nearly a third more likely to click through an online retail site than men but that doesn’t appear to tie up with the male online spend cited here.
What's ultimately clear is using digital technology to either replicate online the high street experience - or even enhance it so it works more effectively on a mobile - is nowhere near enough. Especially as there are many other digital factors now coming into play.
Shopping behaviours are changing. Consumers’ basic emotional responses such as ‘need’, ‘perception’, ‘looking good’ and ‘feeling good’ are being replaced by deeper feelings raised through digital influence from friends, social peers or authority figures. And that’s not just down to celebrities like Kim Kardashian. This piece suggests most consumers now trust influencers more than ads.
Therefore, future iterations of digital usability of a retail presence must take these emotionally-driven behaviours into account too when designing and implementing technological transformation projects. Otherwise the outcome will be as arbitrary as simply continuing to assume men and women shop on different planets.
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