Grocery Stores: Not Just For Ladies Anymore!


If you always assumed grocery stores were designed to be equally unpleasant places for both men and women to shop, you thought wrong. It turns out that from the start, stores have been subtly geared toward being more accessible and friendly for women, who were, after all, their primary customers for many years. But now all that is changing. According to the Chicago Tribune, men are increasingly taking over food shopping duties for their families, and this is revolutionizing the way stores serve their customers, even leading to the creation of the "man aisle," a ridiculous-sounding safe space for male shoppers.

Apparently this sneaky male encroachment into what had traditionally been lady territory has been happening slowly for decades, but the recession turned it into high gear. As layoffs hit men especially hard, they suddenly had more time for shopping. According to consumer research, in 1985, 14 percent of men nationwide were the primary grocery shoppers for their households. By 2011, the number had more than doubled to 31 percent. And one survey of fathers across the country found that 51 percent of them were the head shoppers at home. It seems that younger men especially, ages 18 to 50, are "more than happy" to hit the grocery aisles. Says 25-year-old concert promoter Judson Eakin, "I don't live with a girlfriend or anything, but even if I did, I wouldn't just send her" to the grocery store. Well, congratulations on being so forward-thinking, buddy!

So now that men are increasingly braving the food aisles, stores are trying to figure out ways to better accommodate these sensitive males' needs (read: make more money off of them). According to the Tribune, this begins with rethinking decades' worth of marketing habits:

It's a paradigm shift for the $560 billion retail food industry that has patently referred to the primary customer as "she," focusing marketing and advertising firepower on women, and mothers in particular — sometimes making fun of dads in the process.

Danny Meyer, a 35-year-old who began doing most of the grocery shopping when his fiancée went to grad school, and who also happens to be the brand manager for the hilariously named Bimbo Bakeries USA, says,

It does kind of bother me that the focus seems to be toward moms and women in general. It seems obvious the target should represent more people.

Is this just a case of playing to what has been their largest audience, or is there some sort of secret advertising plot to undermine men's confidence in their ability to shop? Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, sees a hidden sexist message in how ads portray men as "disengaged or incompetent" as they try to participate in household tasks:

[M]en on the homefront are where women in the workplace were 30 years ago. If we portrayed women like that in the workplace, there would be an outcry.

He does have a bit of a point there—though women get more than their fair share of sexist ads in just about ever other category of goods. So it all evens out, and fortunately for grocery shopping guys, things are changing quickly.

At the most basic level, companies are starting to develop and market food products specifically to men. One example is MiO, small bottles of flavored drops that "make water more enticing." Barry Calpino, vice president of breakthrough innovation at Kraft Foods, which makes MiO, explains why the product has been such a success with men:

Guys, when it comes to shopping and cooking, they love to customize and add their own personal touch.

As opposed to women, who love to buy generic, pre-made things and dump them straight out of the box and onto the table…? Moving on: Calpino thinks the reason MiO took off with men in particular is because they "didn't launch it in the traditional way, thinking that she buys it, takes it home and he drinks it."

Another Kraft product that's been a hit with men is Philadelphia Cooking Creme, which Calpino says found its perfect male audience because they put it near the chicken (where presumably men are drawn by their primitive connection to meat?):

We had a lot of guys who impulsively bought that product, thinking, "What can I mix with chicken? I want to try something different."

So I guess it wasn't just a hit with men by default because women instinctively knew to stay away from something with the disgusting name of "Philadelphia Cooking Creme"?

Anyway, it's not just the products that are now being aimed at guys. After focus groups found that "many men were terribly uncomfortable with the shopping experience," Procter & Gamble took a unique approach to make stores easier for men to navigate:

Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. began testing "man aisles" in 2009 and is expanding the program into some Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens stores as well as other chains in the U.S. and Canada in 2012.

According to P&G spokesman Damon Jones, this was apparently necessary because they found that in many stores, "men's personal-care products were scattered across different aisles, often in subprime locations like a bottom shelf or the end of an aisle." So basically they were arranged like most of the other products in the store—in other words, in a gender-neutral manner. Yes. Except, you see, women have the patience to navigate complex aisles crammed with products, whereas men apparently don't:

Men had little patience searching for lotion and body wash, especially when weaving through contingents of women and teenage girls.

Oh, so not only are their attention spans too short, there are always pesky women blocking them from finding their shaving cream. Wow, it's a miracle any of them ever go back to such a hellhole after their first visit to the grocery store. But now their suffering is over, because of these man aisles—which we should obviously call Guyisles:

The man aisle puts all men's products, including P&G competitors, in one place, with shelf displays and even small TV screens to guide men to the appropriate skin-care items. Jones said the tests have gone well, with men spending more time in the aisles and, ultimately, more money.

They get TVs? God. But seriously, man aisles? How is that not as insulting as the sexist marketing men were just complaining about? Can you imagine if a store installed a "lady aisle" that helped all of us female simpletons figure out where our special creams were?

But the stores feel these specialized aisles are necessary to capture male shoppers, who have a different method of shopping than their female counterparts. First, let's start with the assumptions about women that retailers are working from. Barry Calpino of Kraft says,

The mindset has been that she shops, she really knows every inch of the store, she is really organized, has a list, is in a huge hurry.

Well, that doesn't exactly match up with my experience being stuck behind many a ponderous woman shopper in the narrow aisles of my local Whole Foods, but what do I know? So what does Calpino reveal about men's habits:

We talk to a lot of these millennial guys about shopping, and the biggest headline is they're not as structured, not as hurried, much more experimental, more adventurous.

Oh, brother. Shopping as a guy sounds like way more fun! But did anyone stop to think that maybe it's not some sort of genetic thing that makes men less hurried, maybe it's just that they can afford to spend more time because they don't have 16,000 other things that still need to get done on the homefront? Grrr.

Anyhow, putting that aspect of things aside, how does this square with the earlier premise that men need help finding things all in one place because they can't be bothered to spend any time finding the deodorant they're looking for? Not well: if anything, it seems like they should be more likely to seek out what they need. At least that's what it sounds like when shopper Danny Meyer explains his method:

I walk in and go with the flow of the store, going aisle by aisle. I like to walk through all the aisles even if I don't think I need anything there, because sometimes something will catch my eye.

Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief strategy officer with Leo Burnett in Chicago, takes it even further, saying men aren't as likely to ask for help finding things but are more inclined to go through the store a second time to make sure they didn't miss any important items. Why are they like that? Brace yourselves! Hahn-Griffiths says,

It's part of the hunter mindset. When you're a hunter, you're more likely to move from place to place and recircle areas you might have missed.

They shop like hunters. Hunters? Seriously? That's what this all boils down to? Yes, but there's more. Hahn-Griffiths says men are also more likely to shop around for the best price because they like to win!

Though men are very mission-driven, very grab-and-go, get-it-done, it's not at the expense of paying a price premium. They are very driven by finding best prices before making purchases, and they're not going to jettison quality either.

Wait? Didn't we just decide that women were the mission-oriented, get ‘er done shoppers? This is so confusing! Anyway, men's supposed open-mindedness also makes them more likely than ladies to make impulse buys. Susan Viamari, editor of Times & Trends at SymphonyIRI Group, explains:

[Men] have a little brighter outlook on the economy and their finances, and this is going to impact their purchase behavior and their openness to impulsive purchases, trying new products, things of that nature.

This runs totally counter to every media stereotype of women who impulsively buy expensive shoes and run up thousands of dollars in adorable credit card debt, while their miserly husbands tsk-tsk them from the couch. So at least now we know that men are just as impulsive, if not more so, than women—in some areas anyway. So how does this play out in nature? Let's turn again to Danny Meyer who tells the story of his recent decision to buy a Samuel Adams holiday sampler at his local Jewel:

I wasn't planning on buying beer, and I happened to walk by and they had it on display. I thought it sounded really good, so I'm going to buy it. And it was good.

Magical! He saw something on display, he wanted it, and he took it. Well, isn't that just like a man... But it's a wonder he was able to find the beer in the first place, given all the confusing displays and women crowding the aisles. Let us pray that in the future there will be long, orderly aisles filled with nothing but beer and chicken cooking creme and aftershave and TVs that will beckon to men from the parking lot and draw them in before tricking them into spending their hard-earned money on artificially-flavored drops to enhance their water.

More men taking the reins of the cart [Chicago Tribune]

Image via goto10/Flickr.