The power of the purse

Women now shop for manly things, the New York Times reports. This is news?

Published October 30, 2006 4:34PM (EST)

Did you know that many women buy cars, enjoy snack foods and sometimes visit Home Depot? Well, you do now -- thanks to the zillion-word feature "What Do Women Want? Just Ask" from the Business section of Sunday's New York Times. (By virtue of its sly headline, the story currently tops the Times' "Most E-Mailed" list.) The piece reports from the front lines of women's buying habits, where, armed with credit cards, ladies are invading the formerly male domains of houses, vehicles, Allen wrenches and electronics. And companies are taking notice, designing more family-friendly laundry rooms and offering woman-centric customer service in various attempts to tap into the purchasing power of the modern female.

And, generally speaking, that's good news. Sure, the thesis behind this exposi is a little stale, and the recognition of women as a demographic just means more companies will contort themselves to sell women shit they don't need, but if it means that women have an easier time getting loans and get less patronizing treatment when buying cars, I'm all for it.

In touting the power of the female consumer, though, the piece makes a few sloppy shortcuts. For instance, here's a bit of theorizing from consultant Michael J. Silverstein: "We are perhaps on the first step to a matriarchal society; women will earn more money than men if current trends continue by 2028," he told the Times. It's true that there's a trend; the Times reports that "in 2005, government data show, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $585, or 81 percent of the $722 median for their male counterparts, up from about 63 percent in 1979." But fewer women than men tend to be full-time workers, and until we cook up some better childcare options, that gap is unlikely to close. Even among full-time workers, it seems strange to expect that women's earnings will outstrip men's in the next 20 or so years. Unless there's some reason that 2028-era women workers will be valued more highly than their male counterparts, I'd like to think that if and when the wage gap closes it'll mean equal pay for equal work, not a pendulum swing to a matriarchal society.

The piece also attributes the female buying boom -- in which women influence 90 percent of electronics purchases, make 70 percent of travel decisions, buy more than 50 percent of new cars and trucks, make 33 percent of purchases at so-called big-box stores and bought 47 percent of all painting supplies sold in the U.S. in June, according to sources quoted in the story -- to a shift in "education and pay." Not only are women making more money than they once did, but "women represent 57 percent of undergraduate classes and 58 percent of graduate classes," the Times reports. Yet while those advances have surely had an impact on women's purchasing autonomy, the piece seldom distinguishes between women shopping for themselves and women shopping on behalf of their households or families. Likewise, the story doesn't mention whether joint or single incomes are funding this rush of purchases. Whether women are spending money they earned, savings that were jointly earned or money someone else earned doesn't much matter, but it seems premature for the piece to assume that income and education are the forces driving the boom rather than examining whether the two trends are linked. Recent purchasing trends might reflect the fact that women are becoming more educated and making and spending more money, but they might also indicate that women's roles within their households are shifting, or that we've all gotten hooked on "Car Talk" and HGTV.

All in all, the piece is less a report on consumer trends than an upbeat report for consumers. By the end of Page 4, the story has advertised so many women-friendly outlets that it feels like a shopping list of stores and services eager to target women. Maybe the Times is doing some kind of stealthy promotional crossover. That, at least, could explain the story's cynical artwork, which reimagines Rosie the Riveter as a mighty consumer, her muscular arm hefting an overflowing purse, her gaze directed down at her credit cards. I guess I'm glad the Times sees such revolutionary power in women's purchases, but it's depressing to see Rosie relocated to the mall. When it's a rallying cry for shopping, "We Can Do It" rings a little hollow.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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