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Women Control about 80% of Household Spending: A Look at the Numbers

The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy honored me with extensive consultation on the spending power of women. Unfortunately, he chose to discount everything I said. And I thought I had some pretty good points to make! So I’m sharing my evidence and reasoning for anyone to review. Do women control about 80% of household spending in the United States? Look at the evidence and make up your own minds.

I was comfortable with using “about 80%” when I wrote my book ten years ago, and I’m still comfortable with it now. If anything, I'm increasingly comfortable with it as more research on women is being conducted and released by well-funded and analytically sophisticated companies like Boston Consulting Group, Booz, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs.

BCG’s study reported that 73% of US household spending is “controlled” by women. I couldn’t find if they defined “controlled” as dollars or purchase decisions, but clearly, the overall take-away is that women are the primary buyers, and their spending accounts for far more of the US consumer economy than their representation (51%) in the US population.

I sometimes cite the 73% number these days, but more often, I still use “about 80,” as I think, based on admittedly qualitative inputs (outlined in Part II below), it is a more accurate indicator of women’s actual buying influence.

I’ll start by outlining why I was comfortable enough to put it in my book ten years ago. And then I’ll provide the “insider” context on gender differences that makes me equally comfortable using it today.

Part I: Why I Was Comfortable Using “About 80%” In Marketing to Women


When I first started using “about  80%” in 1999 (I think Tom Peters may have used it as early as 1997), although there was no primary source for it, it was consistent with the "gestalt" of numbers we did have sources for, namely:

Day-to-day Spending

It was well-recognized that women bought (and still do buy) the strong majority of household items sold in grocery stores, mass merchandise stores, drugstores, etc. If I recall correctly, at the time, I think households were estimated to spend about 20-25% of their budgets on these types of things on average, varying greatly, of course, by household income level. (The lower the HH income, the greater the percentage that must be allocated to day-to-day necessities.) I know that Cheryl Russell, who is far and away the leading consumer data authority in the US, recently reported that “groceries” is ranked the #2 spending category for US households. (See my next item for the #1 category!)

My "net-net" on this is that ten years ago, women accounted for around 90% of this type of day-to-day spending. These days, men do slightly more of the household shopping, but as I said above, for heterosexual couples households, mostly they handle "fill-in shopping," and most of the time they have a list provided by their female partner. So I’d be willing to drop it down to 80% at this point.

Big-ticket Spending

Homes

Now let’s look at spending category #1: the biggest purchase most people ever make - their homes. The number Tom Peters uses is that 92% of houses are bought by women. Tom doesn’t cite his source, and, candidly, that feels a little high to me. It’s probably based on crediting women with 100% of the buying decision for every house bought by a couple or a single woman – which comes to 92% of houses. But I’ll grant you that men have some say in a couple’s decision to buy a house… it’s just that when you look into specifically what their say is, I think you’ll agree: not so much.

The “couples” factor matters because most homes are owned by couples. According to the National Association of Realtors 2004 Survey, married couples accounted for 62%, unmarried couples 9%, single women bought 18% and single men bought less than half of that, 8%. So couples, married and unmarried, bought 71% of homes. As the Numbers Guy’s recent article showed, at most only 5.6% of those could be assumed to be gay couples; the rest – 65-68% - were bought by heterosexual couples.

Most realtors will agree that, while a man has the power to veto a home purchase, only the woman has the power to say, “Yes.” I’d say “the power of yes” is 90% of the value of the spending decision. Let’s credit women with spending power equal to 90% of the 65-68% of houses bought by couples, or about 60% (0.9 x 0.66) of all couples’ real estate dollars.

On top of that, there are the 18% of homes bought by single women (and by the way, those single women who are in their 20s without kids on average now earn 8% more than their male counterparts) and going for round numbers, we see that women account for 75- 80% of residential real estate spending.

Since mortgage payments account for somewhere in the area of 30-40% of a household's monthly budget, this residential real estate factor carries a lot of weight in the “how many consumer dollars women spend” equation.

So: for the #1 and #2 categories of household spending, representing 50-65% of consumer dollars, I am more than comfortable crediting women with 80-85% of the spending decision.

Other Big-Ticket Items

Although ten years ago when I started my company there were far fewer categories tracking big ticket purchases by gender, of the ones we had, almost all indicated women were the primary buyers of cars, computers, consumer electronics, real estate, etc.  While I certainly wished there were more quality studies and more careful reporting of sources in the articles I used as my data sources, it’s not like there were a plethora of contradictory studies showing that in fact men bought more.

What did exist – and still persist – are a ton of stereotypes based on the accurate observation that many of these categories are more interesting to men and talked about more among men. That led people to jump to the inaccurate conclusion–  , according the data I was seeing – that because men were more interested in these categories, they actually did the majority of the buying.

Cars

JD Power at the time (1997) reported that 60% of cars were bought by women. I’m always careful to stipulate that this number refers to New (not used) Cars (not “Vehicles,” which also includes trucks and vans, which are bought primarily by men, even though moms buy a lot of SUVs and mini-vans).

The other numbers, being from lots of different sources, don’t always agree, but directionally they are all consistent with "women buy the majority of new cars."

  • Vehicles: Women purchase about two-thirds of vehicles and influence 80% of all sales. (Business Week, 2004)
  • Vehicles: According to Ford Motor Co., women have influential buying power.
  • Females influence 80% of ALL purchases and have 95% veto power regarding automotive purchases. (Automotive Service Councils of California, 1999
  • New Vehicles: 52.2 percent of all new vehicle purchases are made by women -- up from 20% in 1984 and 40% in 1989.(Woman Motorist, 2000)
  • New Cars: 65% of new cars in the U.S. in 2002 (USA Today, 2003)
  • Cars: Women accounted for 53% of auto purchases ($81 billion worth) in 2002. (Dealer Marketing Magazine, 2003)
  • Cars: Women purchase about 55 percent of all Toyota vehicles and 60 percent of all Toyota passenger cars sold in the U.S. (from an article titled “What Are Automakers Doing for Women? Part II: Toyota,” By Carol Traeger Posted 06-28-2005)
  • Used Cars: 53% of used cars (VMR International, 2001)
  • Car Service: 65% of auto repair patrons (Natl Inst Automotive Service Excellence, 2001) Also, (2001, Aftermarket Insider, Vol. 9. )

 

Net-net, while I have no idea what percent of HH budgets are spent on car payments, it’s probably the second-largest big ticket item after a house. And there are some decent indicators that women account for around 60-65% of spending on “New Cars.”

Computers

In 2000, the website for the Securities Industry Association posted this: “An IntelliQuest survey of 2,000 women found that 66 percent of PC purchases were made by women.” I believe they meant to refer specifically to household purchases, excluding business purchases, and while it surprised me the number was so high, it’s the only one I had, and I chalked it up to households now buying their second generation of computers, often multiples, for their kids.

The computer numbers I currently use are: “Among US Adults (18+) active online in 2005, who purchased computers for the home in the past 12 months, 55% of the desktops and 51% of  the laptops were bought by women.” (Nielsen/NetRatings, Spring 2006). Relative to the categories I’ve discussed above, annualized spending on computers is almost trivial; I include it because it’s another one of those categories people often assume is bought by men – but it’s not.

Consumer Electronics

Since I haven’t done any speaking or consulting in consumer electronics for a while, I’d had no reason to look around for updated sources. The last time I’d looked, the couple of sources I’d found, including the grand-daddy of credibility in the category, CEA, showed that women bought more CE than men.

  • “Women actually spent more on technology last year than men, according to the Consumer Electronic Association. It says women accounted for $55 billion of the $96 billon spent on electronics gear.” (From an article “Study: Women buy more tech than men.” Posted on CNN.com, Friday, January 16, 2004)
  • In Mark Penn’s new book, Microtrends, he identifies small patterns in behavior that are influencing our lives. In the technology section, he identifies a group he calls "Tech Fatales." It turns out there is sizable group of tech-savvy women being ignored by most technology retail outlets. Women outspend men 3 to 2 on technology and influence 57 percent of new technology purchases. Girls are more likely than boys to use cell phones, digital cameras, satellite radios and DVD recorders. “(From “Women Outspend Men 3 to 2 on Technology Purchases.” Posted Thursday January 3, 2008)

Technology Adoption Patterns: The typical pattern I’ve seen in technology products is that men are always the early adopters of any new technology. Women don’t get into the game until the bugs are worked out and companies are better able to articulate the benefits in terms of “how will it make improve something in my life,” instead of abstract specifications.

I suspect that’s why the new CEA study shows men spending more: In 2009 there were several really big innovations in technology: smartphones were still in early days; the TV broadcasting platform had just switched to digital, driving sales of HDTVs, and the iPad had just been launched days before the study’s interviews were conducted. It’s possible that men, who are more likely to jump on the new and novel, especially in technology, responded strongly, while women played wait and see, which upped the male share of spending for that period.

Part II: Why I’m Comfortable using “about 80%” Today

The four qualitative considerations which I believe warrant “plussing up” BCG’s 73% number to 80% (i.e., by about 10%) fall into two areas:

  • There are good reasons to believe that women play a considerably greater role in couples’ spending than men do. This affects a majority of purchases because couples households represent the majority (51%) of US HH. 
  • Having worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of different research studies over my 30 years in the business, I also adjust for the oversights and limitations of various research methodologies, which I believe understate this greater role that women play.

First, let me address a concern some have. Since women represent 51% of the population, it seems counterintuitive that they exert that much more than 51% of the spending power.

Some big-picture scope: In 2007, women occupied 81% of US HH (US Census data).

  • In the 27% of households headed by a Single Woman (12% with kids, 15% living alone,) she obviously controls all the spending. That is, in over 1 out of 4 US HH, the woman alone makes the decision.
  • In Couples households (51% of US HH), family dynamics are such that she plays a much greater role in household spending than the man. I explain these dynamics below. That brings us up to 78% of US HH. Relatedly, if we’re trying to look at dollar value, rather than simple number of purchases, Couples households spend more than Singles households because of larger household size.
  • The remaining 3% of women-occupied HH are “non-family HH with a female householder” – roommates? I don’t know; but either way, it’s a woman doing the spending there too.

Women Play a Considerably Greater Role in Couples’ Spending than Men Do

Women take on buying responsibility in almost all couples households; a factor that affects both day-to-day and big-ticket spending. This stems not only from cultural conventions, but also because their decision-making process is more in-depth than men's, and they want more information when making a decision, even on factors that men would consider not worth much of their attention.

Cultural Conventions: Women throughout history have always been the primary household manager, which includes keeping up on household inventory needs day-to-day. Based on Americans' Use of Time studies, things these days haven't changed nearly as much as some of the headlines would have you believe. Men are doing a few more household chores, and a little more household shopping than their fathers, but still only about half as much as their wives.

Women’s more in-depth decision process: On big ticket items, women have a “longer list,” by which I mean that relative to men, women prefer to explore more options and to look at secondary factors in addition to primary considerations, Without looking at their choices in this depth, they don't feel ready to commit to their share of a dual-purchase product or service.

If the man of the household handles the initial phase of narrowing choices down from the original “possible options list” to the shorter “best options list,” and then brings that information to discuss with the woman of the house, generally she will feel that he doesn’t have answers to a lot of the questions she needs info on in order to sort out the best possible combination of features/benefits/price, etc. (Men have a more focused and streamlined decision process and prefer to stay focused on the primary/most important elements. Thus, they are more likely to see looking at more options and secondary features as “a waste of time” and something that unnecessarily slows them down.)

Consequently, after a few experiences like this, most women learn that if they want more answers, they need to do the research themselves. Which is why women have taken on the research role for couples’ big ticket purchases And it’s at this initial research stage that narrows the list down from “possibles” (say 10 brands) to “best options” (say 3 brands). Even for “joint decisions,” where the man and woman come to a consensus, which we could say was a 50/50 decision, the fact that prior to their discussion, the woman chose which 10 brands would be on the Possibles list, and then decided which six didn’t make the cut is a huge and completely overlooked component of “spending power.” Just because part of the spending decision is invisible to marketers and researchers doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Moreover, in most households, it is more often the woman than the man who decides “it’s time to buy” in the first place, because she is usually the family budget manager. If in her estimation the family doesn’t have enough money to afford a new car or TV or whatever right now, generally she will prevail. No sale. Conversely, when it’s time to buy, she will usually be the one to start the ball rolling. These dollars are spent or not spent on her say-so.

Based on these two factors alone, I am perfectly comfortable plussing up BCG’s reported numbers by a mere 10% to better reflect women’s “spending power.”  But wait – there’s more!

Research Weaknesses and Limitations

The two qualitative adjustments I make here reflect that:

  • Researchers don’t ask the right people the right questions in the right way. The findings they get are based on formats, question structures and language that evolved 40 years ago and for the most part haven’t been updated, mostly because they are more concerned with metrics than with insight.
  • Consumer respondents self-reporting their behavior and influence relative to other decision influencers routinely overstate their decision authority; men exaggerate more than women do, meaning men’s self-reported spending is overstated relative to women’s.

Poor Research Methodologies

Most researchers don’t split out their data by men/women, so we don’t know what their different spending influence is. Instead, researchers usually default to the gender-neutral “consumer.” They conduct their research among “adults age x-y,” thus remaining oblivious to the differences in male/female roles, shopping/buying habits and decision processes. 

Separately, even if they were splitting out the data, very few researchers ask the right questions to get at who actually wields the “spending power” in a couple’s household. Researchers try to get clarity about “joint decisions” by asking "who decided," or "who bought most" or "who is the primary shopper;" but none of them (none that I’ve seen, anyway) asks, “Who decided it was time to buy?” or “Who did the initial research that narrowed the list down from ‘possibles’ to ‘best options?’” This overstates the “decisiveness” of the actual transaction and understates the decision elements of the two prior phases, i.e., deciding to buy, and researching the buy.

Not surprisingly, since the research focuses only on the actual transaction stage, respondents asked to self-classify as “primary” or “joint” decision makers also tend to forget or discount these shopping phases in their answers, instead focusing exclusively on who was involved in the final brand choice decision.

Self-reported Research Weakness

The Futures Company study cited by the Numbers Guy is based on self-reported recollections of who was involved in what, and self-reported research is by its nature subject to distortions. Although both men and women tend to over-report their role/influence in joint/couples decision-making, men exaggerate more than women do, based on a couple of the norms of their gender culture.

First, men are more “Self” aware and self-crediting. Psychologists – many of them – have found that men are more aware of “self” than of “others,” while the reverse is true for women. Consequently, men are likely to report more influence in any decision, and be less aware of the shopping and buying their female counterpart is handling. 

Second, more of men’s self-image is involved with being seen as the one “in charge” because men’s view of the world tends to be more hierarchical than women’s. It is traditional for men to see themselves as “the provider,” and since men bring home the majority of the bacon in 50% of US HH, in their view, that makes them “in charge” of the HH. Accordingly, they are more likely to think of themselves as the decision-maker even in those cases when they are not. (Women earn either the same or more than the men in the other 50% of US HH.)

Bottom Line: It’s complicated. You have to go beyond raw numbers and superficial research to get at the substance of what marketers need to know: “Who do I need to talk to if I want to influence sales of my brand?”

 

I don’t have perfect information, because there is no perfect information. Part of marketing is making the best inferences possible from the available information. I am absolutely comfortable with the conclusions I’ve drawn and the analysis I’ve made.

In closing, let me add one more thought: In addition to saying that women account for “about 80%” of consumer spending, which last time I saw the numbers accounted for roughly 2/3 of GDP, I also make the claim that women account for “at least half” of B2B spending. As a bonus (!) I’m sharing my rationale for that below:

Women Account for At Least Half of B2B Spending

The US Dept of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that, as of 2010, women were 55% of Purchasing Agents, 46% of Purchasing Managers and of 52% of Wholesale and Retail Buyers. I assume these are the people who buy the company’s raw materials and equipment, as well as decide who will get their contracts for supplies and business support services like office equipment, office supplies, freight & shipping, etc.

The same source shows that 69% of HR Managers are women, as are 53% of Financial Managers – I’m assuming that contained in these two categories are the people who screen and recommend the employee 401(k)/financial plans and health insurance plans, the other major spending categories for companies. (Interestingly, another major expense category for businesses is, of course, their employees. And while we wouldn’t exactly count employees as an element of “spending power,” it’s worth noting that those “Human Asset” decisions are also partially influenced by HR Managers, of whom, may I repeat, 69% are women!)

Together, I'd estimate that these three mega-areas of purchasing - corporate cost of goods; business equipment, supplies and services; and employee financial and insurance plans - account for most “Business spending,” in the sense that vendors care about, and it looks like most of the people who make these spending decisions are women. Hence, I’d say “Women account for at least half of B2B spending."

So, reader, what do you think? I’d love to get your feedback.

Warm Regards,

Marti Barletta 

Marti Barletta

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