It has been a bleak midwinter for the retail sector. While retailers can justifiably blame the poor weather for lacklustre Christmas trading, a new report claims that many brands continue to underperform in an area that does lie within their sphere of influence.
The study from Saatchi & Saatchi X argues that marketers are consistently failing to connect with the hearts and minds of male shoppers. Men are shopping more than ever, but the ad agency's research suggests that 40% of them feel unwelcome in stores. 'The very act of shopping has for many years been categorised as a more female activity,' says Simon Goodall, Saatchi & Saatchi X director of strategy. 'This is an outdated way of thinking. The number of male shoppers is going up all the time.'
Men's emotional needs are different from those of women when it comes to shopping, adds Goodall, which means that retail marketers need to think differently about how they try to connect with them. 'Men love doing things they can do well. They like opportunities to demonstrate mastery, which means they like to go into a shopping environment already knowing the answer to questions they might want to ask,' he contends.
Tyler Brule, editor-in-chief of Monocle, says the UK department-store experience is 'too mixed up' for men. 'I don't think guys want to walk onto a football-pitch-sized retail floor and think: "Where do I go?".'
Goodall believes that retailers could do more to enable men to find the information they require before they reach the checkout. He cites consumer electronics company Best Buy, whose 'Twelpforce' service offers technical advice via Twitter, as an example of a retailer empowering men with knowledge.
However, it is not solely through the application of online and mobile technology that retailers can act as information providers - stores themselves can prove fertile ground for research. 'The Apple stores are the masters of enabling men to play, but they do it in a way that doesn't feel frivolous or childlike,' says Goodall. 'We found that men don't browse, they research, and Apple stores provide the feeling of personal research centres.'
In-store technology can hold great appeal for men, agrees Chris Baker, creative director of Design 4 Retail, which has developed retail spaces for Adidas, Reebok and Diesel. However, Baker warns that technology without a genuine purpose will prove a turn-off for male shoppers. 'Apple's in-store technology is completely relevant, but I think the use of plasma screens for plasma screens' sake in a fashion hall doesn't do it any more.'
Baker suggests that the desire men have to feel in command of the retail experience can often work against bigger stores. 'If you're a small boutique that knows your consumer really well, then [it is easier for men to navigate] than if you are a Selfridges or a John Lewis, where there are a million brands and a million products.'
Matt Walburn, marketing director of The Perfume Shop, says the relatively small size of its stores gives it an advantage over rivals with greater floor space. 'We are less intimidating than the traditional beauty floor of a department store, which is still considered a male-unfriendly environment by most men,' he notes.
More than 40% of The Perfume Shop's fragrance sales are made to male customers, a figure that rises to nearly 50% in the three months before Christmas (see Sector Insight, page 26). It goes to show that the traditional view, that men are reluctant shoppers, is out of date.
In 2004, Marks & Spencer trialled a 'man creche' in six of its biggest stores, giving men the opportunity to read a magazine, watch TV or play Scalextric while their partners shopped. The trial, however, was short-lived. M&S says it was 'just a bit of fun', but Goodall suggests such zones are 'patronising' to men. Some retailers, however, have pulled it off. Topshop's Oxford Street store in London has a lounge area where people can relax while a personal shopper seeks out their new wardrobe and a concierge provides them with food, music and other diversions.
Some retailers, then, are thinking more creatively about how they can be more appealing to men. Design 4 Retail recently installed a dedicated area for Adidas at a JJB store in Leicester. Dubbed the Adidas House of Football, it features dugout-style seating where shoppers can try on football boots. 'You're really getting into the mind of the consumer, so while he's thinking about what boots he wants to wear on a Saturday afternoon on the park, he's also got in mind the hero he sees playing in the Champions League,' says Baker.
Style alone, however, is not enough to convince men to part with their cash. The Saatchi & Saatchi report suggests that products have to deliver on a functional level as well as an emotional one.
This idea has been embraced wholeheartedly by the male-grooming sector, where testosterone-fuelled descriptions of moisturisers focus on protecting, rather than softening, skin.
The research identifies Dyson as a brand that exudes 'emotional functionality'; as such its products are 'objects of desire' for men. Tim Stickney, the brand's senior design engineer, puts this down to the fact that the products are sold on their engineering credentials rather than a marketing ploy. 'Dyson machines are true to their engineering and perform well.
They are not designed for men, but that's why they appeal to them,' he says.
It is notable that Dyson does not explicitly refer to specific genders in its advertising, something Boots has with its 'Here come the girls' ads. As a unisex retailer, it could be argued that Boots runs the risk of alienating men.
'It's certainly not an ad that is going to connect with men and invite them in,' says Goodall. 'But as long as the store experience meets men's requirements, such as being able to find what they want quickly, the fact you're advertising to women is not such an issue.'
Goodall has noted a growing trend for stores such as Boots to have clearly defined men's areas, as opposed to tucking products for them away at the end of a category.
'There is an opportunity in those zones to focus on the messages and experiences that are going to connect with men's emotional needs,' he says.
If there is any residual doubt about the need to better engage with male shoppers, here is a compelling statistic from the US to mull over. A recent report entitled 'How America Shops' found that the average number of shopping trips made by men is 3.6 a week, compared with 3.9 for women, suggesting that the gender gap is closing.
The message to marketers is clear enough. Start taking men seriously, because the era of sexual equality on the high street is nigh.
HOW MARKETERS ARE REACHING OUT TO MEN
Craig Inglis, marketing director, John Lewis
Men tend to dwell less when shopping and we know they like to get in and out of shops as quickly as possible, while also being more reluctant than women to ask for help. We also know that men are more pragmatic and rational in their shopping habits, compared with the more emotional shopping behaviours associated with our female customers.
For menswear, it is all about clean, modernist and timeless design principles. Shopping spaces should be designed and adapted to men's shopping habits. For example, menswear brands should be really obviously signposted on the shop floor to help men quickly navigate around the store.
Matt Walburn, marketing director, The Perfume Shop
It's well known that male shoppers are now more inclined to access male-grooming categories - and this is particularly true among younger men. Wearing the latest branded fragrance is now the accepted norm for a big proportion of male shoppers, just as the fashion-conscious want to wear the latest trainers or jeans.
The growth of online sales is also a trend affecting how men access the fragrance market. Online sales from our website are doubling each year and men play a big part in driving this growth. The ability to repeat-purchase or choose your own fragrance or gift from your armchair and have it delivered to your door is an attractive prospect for many men.