Don't think pink

Jan. 1, 2020
Female parts customers don’t want to be perceived as dainty or doily-laden. They’re just looking for respect and a clean place to shop.

Thinking “pink” to attract female customers will have them seeing red. Pink is a catchword that describes marketing efforts — usually produced by men — that convey offensive stereotypical notions about what women really want. Experts say that to effectively reach and retain female customers you have to offer a sense of trust, respect and value while providing a safe, clean and well-organized environment. This does not mean doilies on the parts counter or ruffles along the shelves — quite the contrary: Stories abound of women-oriented product campaigns that have crashed and burned because of such patronizing efforts. They backfire because women quickly see right through them.

“Overt targeting of women without a purpose often makes them suspicious, and it alienates men along the way,” according to consultant Lisa Johnson, co-author with Andrea Learned of the upcoming book, Don’t Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy and How to Increase Your Share of this Crucial Market. Due to be published in the spring by Amacom, the book tells of the pitfalls of pitching products and services based on outmoded concepts regarding female consumers.

“Part of the solution is in the merchandising, and the other part is in employee training,” says Johnson. Workers at aftermarket operations need to have a clear understanding of how to properly offer customer service to women. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh little lady, let me help you out,’” Johnson points out.

“Men and women are equal — but they are different,” says Peggy Volpe, co-owner and treasurer at Autobody Supply Inc., an 11-store jobber chain based in Columbus, Ohio. In the past Volpe has had to tell slovenly shop owners to clean up their places of business. Currently her customer base is striving to treat their female patrons as the decision-makers that they are. “It’s a conscious effort, and it’s growing,” says Volpe. “The shops are aware that this is what their competition is doing, and that this is what they have to do.”

“Little things are big things to women,” explains consultant Gerry Myers of The Myers Group. Women will notice if you have coffee or other refreshments in a comfortable setting, and a waiting room should always include magazines of interest to women, not just the usual fare of hunting, fishing and car-buff publications. (Myers also says that an operation’s male management should read women’s magazines as well to gain a better understanding of them.) Industry jargon is a huge turnoff for many women. “The salesperson should be knowledgeable, but they should be careful how they convey that knowledge,” Myers points out.

“How a woman is treated can be as critical to the sale as the product or price. In fact, most of the time, it is more important,” says Myers. “Women are value-added consumers. They will pay more for something if they perceive value in it. Conversely, they will terminate the sales process if they feel they are being patronized, ignored or told to bring their husbands in to discuss the finances,” she says.

More than half of the nation’s population is female. Close to 85 percent of American women are responsible for the maintenance of their vehicles, and 65 percent of all do-it-for-me customers are women, according to the Women’s Board of the Car Care Council at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). And even if a man’s name is in the computer file from bringing a vehicle in for repairs the first time, subsequent transactions are likely to be handled by a woman.

Once inside the bay doors, men are prone to offering a diagnosis. “I think my heater core’s shot.” Women will often describe the symptoms. “My car is cold and there’s green liquid leaking out.”

The Woman Motorist Internet site reports that women buy 52 percent of all used cars. From 1994 to 2000 the percentage of households with female do-it-yourselfers has increased from 27 percent to 34 percent, according to the AAIA, which is currently conducting an updated wide range study of women and the aftermarket, with the results due early this year.

You can expect the across-the-aftermarket female demographic to increase, says Jim Spoonhower, vice president of research and information for the Specialty Equipment Market Association. Younger women make up 18 percent of the sport compact performance enthusiast marketplace; and they’re not shy about racing against men and perfecting their own vehicles. This interest in cars is likely to continue in later life.

Women account for 40 percent of the vehicle buyers within the sport utility vehicle and light truck segment, and close to 18 percent of them use these vehicles to reach off-road hunting, fishing and camping sites, according to lifestyle research from Microsoft Corp. Females make 53 percent of all new vehicle purchases, and the Ford Motor Co. reports that women have 95 percent veto power over vehicle purchases among couples. Also, most men will consult with their partners prior to approving an expensive repair.

A powerful force

The industry has learned that women are a powerful force within the aftermarket, says Mike Kamal, executive director of the Independent Auto Parts of America program group. “There’s a much bigger awareness that this is an issue they have to deal with,” Kamal says, noting that AAIA’s Be Car Care Aware campaign has captured the membership’s attention as a marketing and educational tool.

“If you ignore this segment of the population, you are limiting your potential in your shops,” says Steve Marks, senior vice president of marketing and advertising at the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, Inc. He observes that the demographic numbers have been turned upside down from those of the not-too-distant past when men made most automotive decisions. In conjunction with the University of the Aftermarket, the Alliance offers an array of programs directed at serving female patrons. Publications focusing on a women’s perspective of the aftermarket are regularly distributed to the members. “Our membership knows that we are headed in the right direction, and they are embracing this,” Marks says.

“The business has definitely come a long way,” says Melissa Jolls, marketing director for the Independent Warehouse Distributors. Auto Pride has prepared an Auto Maintenance Seminar Kit designed for women, college students and others — male and female — who may be “first-timers” regarding car care.

The best marketing techniques for targeting men and women revolve around what’s known as a transparent strategy, which involves pitching the various benefits of a product or service without regard to whether one is male or female, according to Johnson, who co-produces with Learned the Reaching Women Online Internet site. The opposite is a visible campaign, which blatantly states that the goods are geared to a specific gender, Johnson explains. “A lot of women under age 35 hate that.” The visible variety might be right for a women’s razor, but certainly not for anything automotive. Labeling concepts such as he-man bedliners or powder-puff car care succeed mainly in sending customers to your competition. It’s the pink thing, says Johnson. “Don’t appear pink — become transparent.”

Pink typewriters, pink-handled pliers and pink cars have all been busts with the buying public, as have pink tires, pink gun grips and pink hotel rooms, recalls Myers, based in Roanoke, Texas. “Hotels that painted rooms in pastel shades and put in frilly curtains to capture the women’s market lost both genders as clients,” she points out. “Those that addressed safety and convenience concerns by putting more lights in the corridors and parking lots, changing to entry cards from keys and adding better amenities in the rooms attracted more men and women.”

Myers emphasizes that you will not lose male customers by making your stores and shops more female-friendly. “Men love automotive products and they are not going to stop buying them,” she says. 

Men and women both would welcome value-added conveniences such as an oil change kit that includes the oil, filter, wrench and directions, Johnson notes. “Learn from the cosmetics industry. Women are used to buying pre-packaged solutions, especially when they are just getting started” within a product category, she says. But a Little Miss Oil Pan package will drive customers away regardless of gender.

Do-it-herself seminars in auto care have proven to be winners. Johnson points to the success of Home Depot’s all-female construction instruction classes. “Baby boomer women like to learn with their peers so they can ask questions.”

Examples of parts that have gone bad or the gleaming flashiness of installed accessories can attract increased interest and confidence. “The displays will reflect completed projects,” Johnson advises, again calling on the home improvement industry. “I can see what that tile floor looks like.”

Blockbuster tips

Aftermarket executives can benefit by looking at what merchants in other product categories are doing, according to Johnson. At Ace Hardware new store formats include wider aisles, how-to signage, streamlined checkout procedures and customer service personnel equipped with two-way radios. Ace Gift Cards and Ace Credit Cards are available. Themed areas such as “The Colorful World” (paints and wall treatments) and “Home Safe Home” (padlocks, smoke alarms, etc.) display merchandise based on consumer use rather than by product type.

Ace holds a minority stake in hardware e-tailer OurHouse.com (whose buyers are 60 percent women) and uses the OurHouse mini-kiosk in some stores. Ace’s “Helpful Hardware Club” provides its 3 million members with benefits such as quarterly rewards certificates, national coupon book promotions and a free subscription to Ace Homeplace, a quarterly consumer magazine launched in 2000 that is filled with home improvement tips and advice.

“Ace’s overall strategy is to provide an exceptional shopping experience to their customers and to develop long-term, one-on-one relationships with existing customers,” says Johnson, “and to encourage customers of all ages to shop Ace.”

Aftermarket operations can gain credibility by having your technicians or counterpeople prepare “secret tips” regarding selected products, much like Blockbuster provides employees’ picks of the best flicks, says Johnson. “You can build a whole campaign around being an ‘insider.’ Offer shortcuts and insider secrets; include stuff that maybe your mechanic knows but the manufacturer wouldn’t have on their directions.” Signage noting “best-seller” items can also be a sales aid.

“The whole idea of peer and expert recommendations really works for women. We’re looking for trusted filters,” she reports. This is not a reference to air and oil purification products, but rather endorsements from people perceived to have more knowledge.

Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart carry much mainstream clout, as do well-known women within the automotive realm. (Kmart’s trouble with the Martha Stewart product line stems from a mixed-demographic message, according to consultant Sean Luce of the Luce Performance Group in Houston. Customers desiring the cheap BlueLight Specials had lower incomes and education attainment than the women who were expected to buy Stewart’s collection of higher-end goods.)

Author and automotive expert Lauren J. Fix is the AAIA’s national spokesperson for its Be Car Care Aware consumer education campaign. Fix, an authority on automotive and safety issues as well as car care and repair, has appeared numerous times on “Oprah!” and a host of other television and radio programs.

“It’s important that our industry has brought on a spokesperson who is a woman,” explains Jennifer Tio, president of the Car Care Council’s Women’s Board. “A lot of times the female consumer is overlooked.”

Says Fix, “It is an outstanding opportunity for me to inform people about the need for preventative vehicle maintenance.” The campaign focuses on ensuring safety, dependability and pride of ownership.

“Lauren is an experienced automotive expert and a highly credible and believable advocate for consumers,” says Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council.

Women consistently rank safety and dependability as primary automotive concerns. Breakdowns and flat tires are viewed as considerable concerns for 65 percent of female motorists, versus just 29 percent of male drivers, according to a survey by General Motors’ OnStar communications and navigational system. A study by Polk reveals that 18 percent of women place a high value on buying state-of-the-art automotive electronic accessories.

Answering questions

Within your stores, boldly present the hottest items and perhaps offer a free service or promotion along with them. They should be near or at eye-level. “I’m not going to get down on my hands and knees to read the bottom shelf — I guarantee you that,” Johnson declares.

“Think through your top 10 best-sellers and then build a display around them,” she suggests. “Be able to be a filter for her” by highlighting what other people are using. “It will save time for your employees, too.”

Women tend to ask more questions than men prior to a product purchase or repair. “Train your sales staff to appreciate these questions. Be an educational source,” she adds, citing the knowledge imparted by staffers at Home Depot and other specialty stores. “A woman may take longer to make a decision, but she will show more loyalty.” Women will make referrals to their friends at twice the rate of men — and they will tell-all to others about bad experiences at the same ratio.

“You really want to take advantage of word-of-mouth,” Johnson encourages. “Be a company that builds great stories through great experiences.”

Les Schwab Tires, a 371-store chain in seven Western states supplying a full lineup of underbody repairs, nets high ratings for a female-friendly customer service focus. “I don’t know a single woman who  doesn’t have a Les Schwab story,” says Johnson, who is based in Eugene, Ore.

The company’s philosophy is deeply rooted in Les Schwab himself, who still comes to work every day at age 86. “Treat our customers like you treat your mom and dad,” he says. Other concepts include “be unselfish for the right reasons” and “happy employees create happy customers.”

According to Brian Capp, Schwab’s director of sales and marketing, “Les knew starting out in small towns that he couldn’t be selective — he wanted to appeal to a broad demographic of people.”

A Les Schwab store manager in Vancouver, Wash., Kelly Porter, explains that “we don’t treat our women customers any different than we treat our men customers; we just supply superior service.” Every facility is spotless throughout, especially the restrooms.

“They don’t have to worry about getting their clothes dirty while waiting,” notes Capp, who says the store-based company training is not specifically directed at serving female customers. A number of women work for Schwab, and “we have a mentor program where we assign another employee to assist and work with them until they feel comfortable” with the company way of doing things.

Word of good treatment spreads like wildfire among schools and individual classrooms as parents share their car repair stories, says Maria Do Ceu, owner of Out West Auto Repair in Petaluma, Calif. “We end up with clusters from different school systems,” she explains.

Word-of-mouth drives the customers to pick Out West, says Do Ceu. Also, the company advertises in a local alternative newspaper, The Bohemian, and in a free parenting publication.  The waiting room is big, bright, airy, clean and safe. The electrical outlets have childproof plugs, kids can’t escape through the child-gates and toys and musical instruments are made available to ease any boredom. Glass windows allow all to observe the action in the bays. “The kids can watch the car go up and down from a safe distance.”

The environment creates “a safe place where mothers or fathers can kick back on the couch,” Do Ceu reports. “They can pick up a People magazine and read the latest on J-Lo,” she adds, referring to famous film star Jennifer Lopez.

Getting to Know Your Car classes are taught by Do Ceu on the third Saturday of each month. The cost is $25 and attendance is restricted to six students to ensure everyone comes away satisfied with the instruction. Out West is open 10 hours a day, four days a week to better ensure convenience for busy customers and a more pleasant lifestyle for the employees, she says.

Do Ceu notes that she has never had anything less than professional and friendly service from her supplier-jobbers, although she observes that she is a positive, easy person with which to get along. “Friction is something I try to avoid.”

Smoothing rough spots

“Friction” is what rubs customers the wrong way, Johnson explains. And it behooves an aftermarket business owner to do the research necessary to discover the rough spots. “Talk to your customers,” she implores. “Figure out your points of friction.” Women might view your establishment and/or workers as cold, or creepy, or too in-your-face, or maybe the place is seen as simply too dark. Perhaps the blaring radio is striking a sour note. Ask a male customer why his wife doesn’t come in with him any more.

Focus groups are a primary tool for adopting the correct strategies needed to bring in and retain female customers, according to Johnson, who says they are often not run well. The typical sterile and controlled setting is not conducive to getting the information you need. “You don’t want people snickering behind a one-way mirror, and the moderator is often like a third grade teacher.”

A focus group event held at a day spa or other fun spot is a much better plan, Johnson advises. “Get your customers to share some of their stories — let the room erupt. Women customers are aware,” she says, “and they can articulate what can be changed.”

Listen carefully to what’s being said, especially if you are planning to introduce a change in the business. “People don’t like change,” says Johnson, recalling that automatic teller machines did not fare well in initial focus groups. Stepping up to a money dispenser with no human teller around seemed totally unacceptable. Yet having a convenient, lighted, source of ready cash is now a routine aspect of American life.

“Women are not going to change how we talk,” says Johnson, “you have to change how you listen.”

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