Beyond toys for boys

Consumer electronics companies, now that more women than men buy their gadgets, are starting to cater to everyone.

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Consumer electronics gadgets such as digital cameras, MP3 music players and mobile phones are often dismissed as “boys’ toys” — and this is simply wrong. They are girls’ toys, too. In fact, in the United States, women are buying more of them than men. According to America’s Consumer Electronics Association, which runs the giant Consumer Electronics Show, women accounted for $55 billion of the $96 billion spent on electronics gear in 2003. In most categories except video games, women have either caught up or are already on top.

The market power of female electronics buyers doesn’t seem to have made the impact in the U.K. that it has in the U.S., South Korea and Japan. In the U.K., people who are interested in gadgets still probably think about men’s magazines such as T3, Stuff and Boys Toys, rather than the trendier, women-friendly Web sites such as ShinyShiny, Popgadget and GirlsStuff.co.uk. Consumer electronics manufacturers have relatively few products aimed specifically at women, and women may feel patronized if they visit popular electronics shops.

However, Paul Hide from Sony says that in the U.K. last year, 53 percent of the purchasers of electrical and electronics products were men and 47 percent were women, and with products such as DVD players, TV sets and laptop computers, the number of female purchasers was about the same as the male. The market is changing, and the changes could go even further.

If you look at the next generation of American teenagers, ages 13 to 18, girls are already more frequent users of some consumer electronics products than boys. Girls are more likely than boys to use a mobile phone (88 percent to 83 percent), a digital camera (54 percent to 50 percent), a DVD recorder (21 percent to 19 percent) or a satellite radio (24 percent to 18 percent), according to CEA market research into use over the previous 30 days. In most other areas, girls score the same as boys — for using TVs, VCRs, DVDs and PCs — or a little less. Only in video-game consoles (49 percent to 89 percent) and portable MP3 players (18% to 29%) are girls way behind.

Paul Jackson, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, thinks teenagers adopt consumer electronics products, whether they are boys or girls, partly because they have grown up with them. “They don’t necessarily see it as technology anymore; they just accept it, like electricity or television.” However, he reckons that changes in the nature of the technology have contributed to the shift in focus away from just males.

In the early days, new technology was of particular interest to men because it provided access to productivity tools that were familiar from work — word-processing programs and spreadsheets, for example — and appealed to hobbyist instincts. As the industry developed, emphasis shifted to things with much broader appeal, such as music, entertainment and e-mail. More recently, there have been moves toward areas that appeal strongly to women, such as capturing family memories (with digital cameras) and communications, which takes in instant messaging, mobile phones and camera phones.

In other words, women’s interests haven’t necessarily changed, but digital technology has finally caught up with them, in forms that are affordable and reasonably easy to use. Portability and wearability have helped a lot. CEA’s market research says that “in a reflection of their increasingly mobile lifestyle, teens have particularly embraced electronics products and services that enable them to be and stay on the go.” This may change when they get married and settle down, but perhaps not. Women, like teenagers, also have increasingly mobile lifestyles.

Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist and ethnographer who works for Intel in the United States, points out that women may now have a wider range of demands than men because they often have to combine work, running the home and child care — ferrying the kids about. These time-challenged “soccer moms,” who have grabbed the attention of American marketing departments, may need their BlackBerrys and mobile devices more than men do.

Manjit Waters, head of O2′s active/mobile portals business, certainly thinks so. She thinks the BlackBerry is, for businesswomen, “the greatest invention” because it lets her do quality work while still being there for her daughter.

But Bell reckons there are still some gender differences. There are some women who are geeks and lots of men who are not geeks, of course. But “there’s something about playing around with technology that is distinctly male,” says Bell. “Women are more likely to say, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ They need good ease of use, simplicity, reliability, durability. To be adopted, the technology has to take the burden off somewhere else.”

Either way, consumer electronics markets have not split along gender lines like, say, wristwatches, and there is lots of overlap. As ShinyShiny’s Katie Lee says: “It’s not just about women: Things are less geeky and more appealing for everyone. The key is just to make things that are small and look nice, because men like nice, small things as well.”

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Should consumer electronics manufacturers design things specifically for women? It is a tricky question. Maureen Craig, vice president and chief strategy officer at Red Tettemer, an advertising agency based in Philadelphia, agrees there is “a gender-agnostic teen market,” but says: “I don’t believe that will hold up when they become adults.” Mobile products suit the teen lifestyle — “if you look at what they can use and what they can afford, mobile fits” — but when they get their first apartment, they will have different needs.

Craig thinks there is a market if consumer electronics companies can come up with gadgets that are “tactile and feminine — look at the products you find in the kitchen,” she says. “That’s not to say you just have to paint it pink: Barbie ain’t the answer!”

Clearly, there’s more of a fashion element to portable electronics because so many of them are wearable, and disposable. Intel’s Bell points out that many girls in Korea and Japan “wear their phones around their necks so they are on display all the time, as a statement of who they are. There are handsets you buy at the jewelry counter!”

This kind of business has driven Asian manufacturers such as Samsung to produce small, cute, clamshell phones that look less like geek gizmos and more like jewelry — and these have also proved popular with European and American women. The ability to change colors by using add-on fascias is also an advantage, since it allows one phone to be matched to different outfits. In Asia, there is also a market for cute, branded gadgets based on characters like Hello Kitty, though this does not seem to have traveled as well.

Jo Twist, science and technology reporter for BBC News Interactive, says she finds the cutesy approach — visible in some displays she saw at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month — somewhat patronizing. Catering for women “is more than just sticking a mirror on a mobile. I tend to steer away from things that are aimed specifically at women, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy a Hello Kitty phone,” she says. “That’s the wrong approach.”

What she wants are functional products that are well designed and easy to use, but aimed at a range of people, “not just the main demographic, middle-aged men.” She also wants them explained in media that women are comfortable reading, rather than in T3 or Stuff. “If you have to find the gadget in the cleavage, that is bound to put women off.”

This is the approach that chimes with the industry. For example, Mike Short, vice president for research and development at O2, the mobile network provider, argues that the appropriate differentiation can be done via content, and via different advertising and marketing channels, rather than by redesigning the product. For example, companies could sell basically the same phone either with access to Disney or Hello Kitty content (which they do in Japan), or with access to Premiership goals. An MP3 player could come preloaded with classical music or rock classics. The same products could also reach different demographic markets by being marketed differently through different types of outlet. The same phone could be sold in bubble wrap in a trendy fashion store such as Gap or by mail order from your pension provider, perhaps differentiated by a spangly red or silver gray fascia.

At Sony, the largest consumer electronics company, Paul Hide says: “We have some products, like portable audio, that come in a range of colors, but they are not specifically aimed at women. We are trying to be gender neutral. But we are moving away from ‘technology buyer’ messages to ‘lifestyle’ advertising. The days of us selling a lot of technology because it was high technology have long gone. On its own, being a technology leader is not enough: There has to be more to it than that.”

Bell says that catering nonspecifically for women “is part of a larger move for companies like Intel. It is not just a matter of paying attention to women but paying attention to older people, to the developing world and a range of other groups.”

In other words, consumer electronics companies are not switching from catering for men to catering for women. There will always be some products targeted at specific groups, but the general idea is to switch from catering for geeky men to catering for everyone. That must be a good thing.

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