Are Gender Stereotypes Good for Business?

Although any kind of profiling or stereotyping might be a dirty word to some, the fact is that one person's "profiling" is just another person's "target marketing."
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If you've ever stood in a checkout line, you probably already know that the low-priced items for sale near the cashier are placed specifically to target you, the impatient or forgetful customer. It's not a bad thing. Headlines relieve your boredom and pique your interest enough to buy the magazine; packs of gum quiet your irritable child; and yes, thanks, I actually do need an iTunes card for the babysitter's birthday.

It's retail marketing at its most basic, and we willingly acquiesce, mostly because the coercion is both fairly upfront and somewhat harmless. We understand the game, and we don't mind a little gentle psych-ops marketing, as long as both the retailers' and our own needs are being satisfied. The stores target a specific profile, or category of customer, which in this case is the impatient and bored checkout-line buyer, and they market their products accordingly.

Gender Profiling
So it should come as no surprise that customers also get targeted for gender. In some Chicago Victoria's Secret stores, saleswomen prefer male customers over female, on the assumption that men are so embarrassed to be there that they'd pay any price to get the purchase over with.

That's what a Victoria's Secret saleswoman recently confessed to Business Insider magazine by revealing, "Men would buy a couple of $50 bras without questioning us because they felt awkward."

The lingerie sales staff will tell supposedly price-conscious female customers about promotions like "five for $25", but tend not to push deals as hard on the men, whom they view as less cost-concerned and more anxious to just buy it quick and leave, even if it's expensive.

Stereotypes or Demographics?
It's a fairly savvy, if over-generalized, approach on the part of salespeople who rely heavily on commission, but does the reverse situation work on women? If men don't want to spend their time shopping for "women's" items, can we assume that women don't want to spend time in hardware stores, for example, and will buy anything at any price, just to get it over with? In fact, it might be more the case that it's the men in Home Depot who are willing to buy more, like kids in a candy shop, and the women who might be more reluctant and price-conscious.

Either way, stereotypes often need to play a part in a successful sale, and using them doesn't necessarily make the salesperson sexist or bad. Although any kind of profiling or stereotyping might be a dirty word to some, the fact is that one person's "profiling" is just another person's "target marketing". In the sales game, tapping into the psych profile of your customer is legitimately called market segmentation, or even just demographics, and it's considered the very foundation of good sales principles.

Caveat Emptor
That's not to say that gender-stereotyping is never discriminatory or sexist. There's a fine line between presenting or suggesting a product to an eligible customer, and outright selling them something they just don't need. A man in a lingerie shop is there for the specific purpose of buying their product, just as a female customer is, regardless of the salesperson's skills. "Caveat emptor" or "let the buyer beware" should always apply, but if he or she buys too much or later regrets an expensive purchase, they can still return or exchange it.

But that's not the case when you're buying an unreturnable service, rather than a product. When a woman brings her car to a mechanic, for example, she must depend on the complete honesty of the salesman to only sell her the service she needs and no more. She can't return the carburetor replacement she unknowingly didn't need, or the ahead-of-schedule oil change she gets talked into just because it seems inconvenient to come back again. Unless she has an excellent relationship with her mechanic, there's a good chance that a female customer will get a far heavier sales pitch than a man would in a similar situation. And because a car is a potentially unsafe vehicle, the pitch usually tries to appeal to her insecurity and assumed lack of knowledge, rather than any real mechanical need.

A good salesperson should use gender stereotypes as a professional tool, not as a weapon. Their commissions and sales numbers depend on their intuitive and observational skills. Salespeople should know who their target market is, what makes them tick, and act accordingly. The potential buyer, in turn, must perform his or her due diligence before taking out their wallet, but also think about the really important decision to be made -- who's going to do the return?

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