If the conclusions drawn by certain popular books are to be believed, men and women come from different planets. You could be forgiven for expecting the authors to be members of the motor trade. The lack of understanding of women’s motoring needs remains a sensitive and important issue.

This is not to say that the problem is unrecognised. Manufacturers become indignant, pointing out the increased featuring and targeting of women in their marketing, advertising and retail developments. The fact that the advertising is often achieved at the expense of men seems unnecessary but that’s another story. Industry training courses now tend to claim to contain particular sessions on selling to women car buyers. More retailers are prepared to employ saleswomen in the belief that this will help put their women clientele more at ease. All this is to be welcomed, but OAI Management Group’s retail studies, which have been conducted since 1985, continue to show that much remains to be done.

The significance of women and the scale of opportunity are far too important for the motor industry not to continue to concentrate on improving the situation. Of the 38 million registered drivers in the UK, 43% are women, showing significant growth over the 11.2 million at the beginning of the 90s. The gap between men and women licence holders continues to close, and the Institute for Advanced Driving expects a dramatic increase of elderly women drivers on the roads over the next 15 years. So it can be seen that women represent a mouth watering market by any standards. At the other end of the spectrum more women now go to work and continue to command more managerial and professional positions, providing increased buying power and individual choice, often free of dependence on male support or the need to provide a car suitable for the family. This is reflected in the increase in women company car drivers from 20% in 1988 to 30% in 1999. Overall, women now account for 33% of all new car sales and 35% of used. Both figures can be expected to grow. In addition, they claim to have a significant influence on 55% of car purchase decisions and we suspect that the true figure is even higher.

A broad analysis of women’s car usage shows similar patterns to that of men, with percentage differences in commuting and visiting friends and family being quite marginal. Shopping for groceries fluctuates by age group but is biased in total towards younger women. However, overall men do complete a noticeably higher annual mileage. No surprises here. Importantly for sales planning, women are very similar to men in the private car buying age groups.

“But it is the differences between men and women that are even more important”

So there are a number of important similarities, which can tend to cluster conveniently on the marketing men’s computers. But it is the differences between men and women that are even more important. Having a better understanding of these will undoubtedly improve the chance of success in the women’s market.

A devastatingly obvious point is that women are far better shoppers than men. However, it would appear that the majority in the motor trade do not appreciate this simple fact or its important implications. Women are responsible for 70% of all main shopping. In addition, to the consternation of the male, the majority not only like shopping but also for many it is an important part of life’s rich pattern. The net results are that women are more adept at shopping and tend to be more aware of prices and value and capable of identifying the better buys. They are more prepared to look at different items, to be objective over comparisons and walk away if dissatisfied.

It remains true that men know and care more about car engineering and power performance factors, which do  not rank highly with many women. However, our findings

“The reasons for this desire are not always rational “

suggest that in reality men are far more emotive purchasers in spite of the lengthy post rationale often given to support the acquisition of a new car. While it will be denied, it is clear that many men consciously or sub consciously desire a certain model early in the purchase process. The reasons for this desire are not always rational but for numerous reasons a particular model registers most strongly from the start. The buying process is then focused on the desired model with competitive models tending to confirm the original choice under the guise of taking a responsible approach. Unfair? Check out how often the early choice is the model purchased. Also, ask a car salesman how often he is able to make the sale if contacted early rather than late in the
buying process.

By contrast women tend to take a more objective approach. They are very aware that a car is an expensive purchase and are rarely impulsive and, in the main, less emotionally involved. Selection tends to be extremely thorough. Ideally, they would prefer to purchase a new car to offset the risk of trouble with a used car, in spite of the recognition of penal depreciation. They consider themselves particularly vulnerable in the used car market. Although all the actions listed below are very rational, we were still surprised at the effort many women take to select and purchase a car. Effort that is mainly outside the influence of the car salesman and frequently undervalued. After deliberately and methodically drawing information from friends and relatives, consumer motoring publications, and uncommitted dealer visits to view cars and collect brochures, lists are drawn up to compare prices, specifications and insurance groups. Even new model introductions are checked out to ensure their shortlist does not include a potentially dated model.

This list tends to be selected against practical criteria. Of particular interest to women in the choice of car are:-

  • Power Assisted Steering;
  • Safety, particularly for children;
  • Accessibility and convenience, again for the family;
  • Manoeuvrability, especially parking;
  • Well shaped boot with low loading sills;
  • Low Running costs, especially fuel;
  • Driving position and comfort;
  • Visual appeal.

Again, no surprises. But it should be noted that while design, colour and price remain an essential part of the purchase criteria they do not represent the overriding factors if other life style requirements are not met.

Women are also honest. If they feel that they do have spare money and deserve a reward, they are happy to make an “indulgent” purchase outside their normal practical approach. “This is for me. Why not?” The difference is that they will make no secret of this. Men tend to post rationalise that they have a genuine need, which rarely convinces anyone.

It can be seen that a thoughtless salesman’s approach of “Hello darling, I’ve got one here to match the colour of your eyes” does not go down that well. Unfortunately, this is not always the joke that it should be.

Indeed, OAI findings show that for the majority of women the car buying process remains as frustrating as it did at the beginning of the nineties. Earlier observations have shown the need for sensible sales qualification, product knowledge and a responsible attitude. Regrettably, salesmen are still patronising and disparaging towards women. They tend to underrate prospects seriously and make little attempt to qualify needs. The evidence suggests that many salesmen see women as an easy touch. How wrong can they be? Typical quotes from our sample include:-

“If they weren’t pushy, they were otherwise leery and untrustworthy. They think we are naïve, pretend to do a special deal and think we can’t add up.”

“Car dealers are seen as dishonest but at least they can attempt to be knowledgeable, clean and to the point.”

“ If attitudes are wrong, I go elsewhere.”

Nor does employing saleswomen necessarily improve the situation. In spite of highly critical comments made about their actual experiences, women have no objection to men, particularly as they are credited with being likely to know more about cars. Indeed many prefer to deal with men. What they require is not a specific female approach, just equality and professional treatment.

“Women accept that they are less confident over the purchase of cars and do not enjoy the male dominated showroom experience”

Women accept that they are less confident over the purchase of cars and do not enjoy the male dominated showroom experience. For the majority, car purchase is not pleasurable and still creates considerable nxiety. To help overcome this they may take a male companion to the dealership at the last stage of selection to provide support. Unfortunately, this often leads to the salesperson addressing the male companion at the expense of the true purchaser, who is frequently ignored. This does nothing to improve the chances of a sale, resulting in the comment “That deserves a slap round the head!” from the indignant female.

Other indications of the depth of thinking and sensitivity among women can be identified by the reactions to fixed prices and courtesy cars. Women believe that accident statistics support their view that they treat their cars better than men and are worth more at tradein than the average value upon which fixed
pricing is based. As a result they will expect a little more. Many working women also resent the belief that courtesy cars are more readily offered to businessmen rather than themselves. Though OAI has no hard evidence to support this feeling, I nevertheless mention it to indicate the level of sensitivity that exists. Those dealerships that are aware of such issues and show understanding are more likely to gain and retain female custom.

With reference to dealers, it is interesting to note that women anticipate purchasing their car at a local dealer with a good reputation. Preferably one that is long established and enjoys a personal recommendation from a trusted friend or relative. Easy access, a good range of well prepared cars and a workshop facility were also considered important. A further blow to current motor retail strategy was the belief that major dealer chains lacked personal service, gave lower customer commitment and imposed higher costs. Women are much more likely to be favourably influenced by a clean and comfortable showroom than men and increasingly expect children’s facilities.

Servicing represents another minefield. Throughout its history men have seen the car as an evolving  machine for which ever greater performance demands have been set. Many men reflect the industry’s passion for engineering, speed or both and are captivated by design developments, often discussing them in minute detail. This is not a woman’s language and they feel disadvantaged when confronting the service representative at the dealership. Their attitude to servicing is reflected in a recent survey that claimed that over 50% of men spent up to five hours a month on their car’s maintenance, while half of all women spent no time at all.

How many dealers have considered that 18% of cars on urban roads at peak time are taking children to school, mostly driven by mothers? Mothers who are concerned for their children on a daily basis have a ‘window’ between around 9.30am to 3pm to have their car serviced. Are such customers shown understanding or more likely told to join the queue like everyone else at 8.30am with collection at the end of the day?

Putting all these OAI findings together, it is hardly surprising that John Thompson of MiTAC concludes from his company’s own mystery shopper results that “If motor dealers want to hand over their business to independent traders, they are going the right way about it”.

The damning opinions received from Toyota’s customers (and we believe Toyota dealerships to be better than most) have brought about a revised showroom approach. Women in particular said they had been patronised, the dealerships were not child friendly and they felt intimidated by dealer staff. Results that are all too consistent with our own over the last decade.

To be successful in the women’s market it is essential to have a better understanding of their needs. Women do not seek more tender loving care. They are looking for more thought and better attitudes. They are individuals with their own standards, values and motivations who are increasingly successful,  ndependent and confident in their own abilities. They are not demanding preferential treatment but to be recognised in their own right.

That’s the real issue. Women are not from a different planet. They simply want to talk a common language.

Michael Banks is managing director of OAI Management Group, a strategic marketing management consultancy to the motor industry, operating since 1981. You can contact Michael on + 44 (0) 1372 467922