High Street Retail Sexism

The sexist high street is a watershed moment for brands

By Giles Calver, planning director

January 21, 2016 | 4 min read

Consumers have a tendency to accept the retail landscape as it is. Occasionally, however, a watershed moment comes along to shake up the way we shop. The news that some brands charge women as much as double as men for identical products is one such revelation that might well wake us from our daily shopping stupor.

One thing is clear from The Times’ report: it’s inexcusable to raise a product’s price for one particular gender when the product is like-for-like. Brands can only justify charging more for added value.

Of course this can take shape in a range of ways. An item might last longer, have added features, be made of higher quality materials or purport to be tailor-made for certain requirements or tastes. It’s a principle that applies to gender too. In my view, there’s nothing wrong with designing a product or pack with a specific sex in mind if it’s done in a considered way and there’s a bona fide reason for it.

The issue at hand here is increased functionality. Bic pens, children’s scooters, disposable razors – these examples were particularly damning because aside from colour, the product performance remained unchanged. Nobody in their right mind could claim they were custom-built to suit either sex because the product offering is at its most basic.

A Gillette Venus women’s razor, for instance, costs more because it has three blades, moisturising cushioning and a pivoting head. There’s a strong case to be made that the product has been engineered to suit a women’s legs. Here, the rationale behind the price premium is easier to believe. But not so much when you just stick two blades together, change the colour and sell it at double the price.

A cynical explanation for this phenomenon is that brands have simply been getting away with charging more for so long. The current state of affairs emerged out of the intention to provide a better service – to design specifically for female features. This in turn entitled brand owners to a price differential. But as we have seen, some rogue brands have taken advantage of this to increase the price across the board. By the time it has become the norm, consumers are less likely to question it.

It’s not controversial to note that in categories such as cosmetics, female consumers have historically been the primary demographic. Even though the market for male beauty products has grown, the gulf between the two remains wide. The female fragrance market, for instance, is still worth far more than the men’s. Raconteur’s most recent report reveals a difference of £400m.

With this in mind, it’s clear why some products (and their packaging) should reflect the target market. The average woman spends more on certain categories and brands pay attention to this. Our purchasing behaviour reflects our attitudes and this gets taken into account when brands do their analysis and profiling before going to market. Even though there have been calls for more neutral packaging, for example, this isn’t always going to be reality. When it comes to purchasing behaviour often what people say and do are two different things.

Take a brand like Benefit, with its own distinctive packaging and identity. It’s undeniably ‘girly’ and very woman-to-woman. Those behind the design have instilled these qualities into the packaging for a reason and consumers respond.

As long as the point can be made that a product designed for one gender is significantly different, charging a premium is justified, just as designing gender-specific packaging is relevant if that’s what consumers respond to. But once it comes out that consumers are being swindled – as The Times’ latest report suggests – they may well start to behave differently – and quite rightly. It takes a moment like this to disrupt the inertia and provide the necessary level of perspective.

Giles Calver is planning director at Sedley Place

High Street Retail Sexism

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