Thursday, February 2, 2012

Men are from Mars. There's no shopping on Mars. Ergo....

"I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist." - Tammy Faye Baker

Part 3 of 3

Disclaimer:  I draw on some generalizations for this post that are based on my own observations and are not based on one shred of scientific proof.  

Let's talk about shopping.  At the risk of over-generalizing, that one word seems to describe a heavenly activity to women and a hellish activity to men.

We all know the stereotypes, right?  I saw the stereotypes played out in real life in my altogether-too-long career working in a mall Radio Shack.  With their compensation plan (at the time--I don't know what it's like now) an "associate" had two choices: sell electronics, or learn to love the flavor choices and nutritional value involved with ramen noodles packed in plastic pouches.  I'm not even talking about the fancy brands--I mean the white plastic pouches with "ramen" stenciled on the side.  Sometimes the quality control is so bad that the white plastic is cut wrong, so you are actually getting a pack of stuff labeled "men   ra".  Yum!  Of course, smart associates (the ones who aren't restricted fiscally to fine ramen dining) know that they sell by engaging with the customer, of whom there were often several in the store at the same time, and the two or three of us working in the store were in competition with each other for those sales, which meant the trick to eating real food for a living was to quickly judge which customers were buying customers (versus just-shopping customers) and engage with them before the other associates could.

Generally speaking, then, if I had two people walk into the store and one was a man and the other a woman, all else being equal, I'd engage the man first.  Why?  Well, what experience taught me is that a guy was there for one of two reasons.  Most likely, he was there to buy something.  If he wasn't there specifically to buy something, then he was there because his significant other was shopping somewhere else and he just wanted to come look at the cool electronics.  If the latter were the case, though, he often told me so immediately so that I could move to other customers who'd help put food on my table.  Granted, some didn't come clean, but they were pretty obvious because they wanted to look at walkie-talkies and computers and calculators and watches, things no human being has ever gone out to purchase at the same time. 

Note: it wasn't that I didn't like talking to customers, buying or shopping, about electronics.  I always did, and I still do.  But you know that Hierarchy of  Needs thing?  The theory in which Maslow said things like food, water, sleep, and sex needed to be met before I could have a meaningful conversation (ish)?  Yeah, that kind of made some decisions for me, which was why I ended up enjoying that job a whole lot less than I thought I would. 

The girl, on the other hand, had one of three reasons for being there.  The first two are the same as the guy's.  The third, though, is that girls like to shop, which is a different activity from buying.  Sometimes it involves buying, but the purchase isn't the main goal.  Since the purchase, rather than the shopping experience, is what put not-ramen on my table, guess which one I put the most effort into engaging with?

Now, before anybody gets huffy--I did disclaim that I'm generalizing here.  I'll go one step further and say that, based on my fumfinty-four years on the planet, I don't think there's any biological or psychological difference between men and women that causes the shopping factor.  Frankly, I think some women like to shop for the same reason I like to watch baseball games.  I really don't like to watch baseball games.  But I'm a guy, and society tells me that guys like to watch baseball games, so every time the TV flips past one I'm obliged to at least hover there till the next pitch.

Anyway, all that said, and adding whatever other interjection you wish for me to add to remain more or less politically correct, women in general like to shop rather than buy, and men in general like to buy rather than shop.

Until, that is, they get to a bookstore (see, I did get to the point).

Hey, at least women are consistent.  Maybe most men are, too, but I'm certainly not.  Walking into a bookstore of any stripe brings out the big bad shopper in me in a big bad way.

Why is that?  Here's where I go way off the deep end, because I really have no authority to talk on the topic.

I'm'a gonna do it anyway.

I surmise that men who would never dream of shopping in, say, a hardware store or an electronics store will shop for hours in a bookstore due to the nature of the product.  I mean, there's really no questioning the utility of a hammer.  If you're looking to buy something to use to hit stuff, you buy a hammer.  Conversely, if you get a hammer, you can hit stuff.  If you get a higher quality hammer, you can hit stuff for longer, most likely, statistical nature of MTBF considered and all.  If you get a 4# sledge hammer, you can hit stuff really hard.  If you get an 8# sledge hammer, you can hit stuff twice as hard as you could with the 4# one.  And so on--there's no mystery.  Nobody--well, no guy, anyway--ever asked a guy why he bought a hammer.  Or a nifty LED-based pocket-sized mega-lumen flashlight.  Or a radio-based walkie-talkie.  Or a GPS (well, maybe the GPS, if one guy's into geocaching and wants to know if his fellow is).

Buying a book, though, is all about risk.  I paid $20 for the paperback set of Game of Thrones and am kind of sad that I did.  I paid $2 for the pre-fondled paperback version of the first Dresden Files book and would've been pleased with it even if I'd paid much more.  That's the thing--I don't *know* the utility of buying a particular book before I buy it.  It might bring me dozens of hours of being lost in imagination-land with interesting characters and an exciting plot arc, or it might bring me twenty minutes of annoyance and a dent in my wall.

Think back to my own recent purchase, if you will (see yesterday's post if you don't recall).  I bought the book not because it was a book I was looking for, or because of the way it was packaged.  I didn't even intend to buy a book, period.  No, I bought the book because somebody I'd never met named Steve recommended it.  I don't know Steve, but I do know Heather now, and she knows Steve, and that's good enough.

That big box store with the initials B and N tries it, and in my opinion they miss the point.  Every one of 'em I've seen has a shelf labeled something like "staff picks."  But the problem with their attempt is that I don't know Ed.  I don't know Marie.  Not knowing Ed or Marie (despite the fact that I probably walked past both of 'em already while shopping), I really don't care what they think of the books in the Staff Pick shelf.  It's the connection, not the label, that matters. 

That's what smart bookstores understand, I believe, and it's also what the other bookstores are missing.  Connect with the customer, find out what he's looking for, get him into a conversation, and you'll sell books.  Present pristine long aisles with stack after stack of impersonal choices and let him wander around, and he'll shop.  You may sell a book, or you may sell a book for Amaz--er, a major online retailer--or you may sell nothing at all.


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