The big business of selling to women: what has it done for us lately?

BlogHer Original Post

In light of Dell’s recent “Della” disaster, I’ve been thinking anew of the big, big business of marketing to women. We’re so inundated with product pitches, especially as bloggers, sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and think, “What has all this done for me lately”? Since I became a mother I often feel like a walking target for marketers of many stripes. That’s why I was interested when I first heard of Best Buy’s “WoLF” program, a network that “is designed to encourage leadership from female employees within the company and to drive its growing women’s market share in consumer electronics.” At first glance the first goal seems hollow, put there merely for the convenience of the second goal: to sell more to women. But actually, Best Buy’s women’s network seems to be doing something for women besides increasing our credit card debt. And because sometimes I want to bang my head against a wall when I look at dismal corporate statistics for retaining female talent, I asked the Best Buy team some questions.

When Della’s lame website came out and hawked netbooks by treating women as if they had never turned on a computer, the effort fell flat, to say the least. So what’s the difference between honestly saying that you want to reach more women by offering cuter laptop bags, as Best Buy’s Liz Haesler told me this morning, and patronizing them by suggesting they use their laptops to find diet tips, as Dell did? It’s a fine line. Best Buy’s approach is to enlist their women- seems like common sense. So, WoLF has about 10,000 members from the community and from the stores. It sounds like most of these women are hourly employees.

Any percentage gain of women buyers means serious cash. Apparently, Best Buys controls 45 percent of the $200 billion consumer electronics market in the United States, but only 16 percent of the total female spend on consumer electronics. According to Best Buy, the female consumer electronics market share is $90 billion.

If they have more women making corporate decisions, will they succeed in selling to more women customers? At Best Buy, “about 29 percent of all U.S. employees are women, and 31 percent hold executive titles.”  That’s not great. So the hope is that if female employees grow female market share, the women will get promoted. 85Broads’ Janet Hanson writes,“WoLF packs” are highly innovative teams who are invested in using their IQ and their EQ to create a higher “return” for Best Buy by providing a “differentiated experience” for their increasingly valued female customers.

"Here’s the deal—women not only purchase the majority of consumer electronic in this country, THEY ARE JUST AS TECH SAVVY AS THE GUYS.”

Best Buy faces an honest business challenge, and I think it’s interesting that they are pegging women’s organizational advancement to helping solve that challenge. In my experience, this is unusual; most company women’s groups don’t impact the bottom line and as such, are easier to dismiss. Most large organizations have networks of special interest groups, and pretend they want to advance minorities for the sake of the common good. However, this is a tricky business for many executives to talk about (and we see this in some of the coverage of the Sotomayor nomination). As anyone who’s ever been the designated woman (or African American, or Latina, or non-American, or Liberal….) in a meeting knows it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes, as my friend Jewel said once in a graduate school management class, executives can interpret “Special interests as special needs.”

Haesler said of WoLF, “It’s honest.” Women can have new opportunities to advance if they help figure out to move more product to women. According to Haesler: "If we want to be a great place for women to shop, we have to be a great place for women to work." In addition, they aim to provide growth opportunities for hourly employees to increase retention and engagement. I asked about flexible work options and other family-friendly policies. On this the Best Buy folks demurred, although they did point to some “Job share” pilots.

Is engagement and innovation sometimes as important as family friendly policies? Research says sometimes. It depends where you are in your life.

But, according to their spokesperson, the company saw an 18% reduction in voluntary female employee turnover from FY08 to FY09, and has contributed to an incremental improvement in the overall number of female employees (a 3 percent increase since F07).

What do you think?

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