Woman and man in shopping mall

There is a popular theory that women and men shop differently. According to the notion, men visit a store, head straight to what they want, buy it and walk out. The theory continues with the idea that women like to take their time, that they go back and forth between several different items and then buy what they first saw anyway.

Like many popular theories, there is no evidence to support it. Research into consumer behavior over many years has consistently shown that we all shop in different ways all of the time. On one day you will shop in a different manner to the way you behave the next day.

Our shopping behavior is contextual. It takes into account other things that are happening in your life. For instance, you will be likely to rush into a shop, buy exactly what you need and head off out of the store if you are on a tight deadline. Similarly, you’ll rush around the shops if you want to get home to catch a TV programme or get to a movie. However, you may flit from store to store if you have to buy a birthday present for your Mum and you have no idea what to get her. Your shopping behavior changes; it is never static.

So, sometimes women take a leisurely stroll around the store, on other days they rush in and get out as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, they are shopping alongside men doing the same. There is no real gender difference in shopping behavior.

Are men really hunters in the shopping mall?

Some people would have you believe that it’s all down to our primitive histories. These people suggest that men are “natural hunters” so they shop in that way too. They rush into a shop, stalk what they want, grab it and return home with their spoils in hand. All nice in theory, except for one thing. Hunting isn’t like this. There’s a lot of hanging around and hoping. Just watch lions. They wait, try to grab something, fail, wait, try something else and have to do this a number of times before succeeding. Hunting is not the romantic notion of going after one thing, getting it and winning. So the idea that men behave in shops because of something their ancestors did is just plain wrong.

Besides, there is growing evidence from anthropological studies showing that the gender divide in early human societies appears to be our modern invention. It turns out that the idea that men did the hunting and women did the home-making is just plain wrong. So, the idea that men behave according to our early gender differences is nonsense because there were no such distinctions.

So is online shopping different?

With Internet shopping, though, perhaps we all behave as though we were acting like the romantic notion of hunting. The convenience of online shopping is what we love. Go to Amazon, search for what you want, buy it with one click and head off elsewhere. All done in seconds.

Online shopping panders to one of our survival instincts – avoiding wasted effort. It allows us, even when not in a hurry, to get precisely what we want with the least amount of effort. Indeed, even if you are not sure what to buy for your Mum’s birthday, Amazon has a useful list of suggestions, all neatly categorized by price bracket which means you don’t have to meander around from page to page, even if you wanted to.

And there’s another gender twist with online shopping. Most of us go into a shop online, buy what we want and head off out of there. And more online shopping is done by women than men, putting paid to that myth that they take their time when shopping. It is the convenience, the survival instinct for doing things with the least effort, that is kicking in online.

However, as ever, things are not that simple. A study from Professor Wendy Moe, at the University of Maryland, has identified three different ways in which we behave online. She has dubbed them “tracker”, “hunter” and “explorer”.

  • “Trackers” are the kind of people who know exactly what they want to buy. They use the web to find out information about price, delivery and so on.
  • “Hunters” know the kind of thing they want, but haven’t made any specific thoughts about precisely what they need. They do lots of comparison shopping online, flitting around from one thing to another until they can see exactly what to target.
  • “Explorers” don’t even know they want to buy something. They are just looking around a topic area and may buy something if they stumble across something interesting.

What this means for your website

Amazon has clearly taken the route of aiming at trackers. Most people know exactly what they want, go to Amazon, buy it and leave. Amazon also has systems in place for “hunters”, by providing categories of gifts, for instance. However, Amazon largely ignores “explorers”; if you have no idea what you want, “browsing” on Amazon is cumbersome and slow. Amazon’s success is because it has focused its website mainly on one kind of online shopping behavior.

However, most business websites can’t do this. That’s because they are targeting people who are in all kinds of buying modes. Often a website is aiming at the “explorer” as they want to entice visitors with their ever-growing content demonstrating expertise in an area. Then, one day, such people are lured into buying something they hadn’t even thought of getting.

At the same time, though, people who definitely want to buy a product or service from you need to get at it right now, no delay and pay straight away. For them, the “more info” button is a complete turn-off.

For most businesses, they try too hard to please all the people all of the time. And it just doesn’t work. As I explain in my book, Click.ology, online shoppers either require “buy now” or they want “information now, and lots of it”. You can’t deliver web pages that do both of these jobs at the same time. The “hunter” needs lots of in-depth information. The “explorer” needs information but at a more general level. And the “tracker” wants the “buy now” option, with just enough information, such as delivery times, to confirm their choice.

Here’s the problem, though. In just the same way we change our behavior in real-world, bricks and mortar stores, we also behave differently online according to the situation in which we find ourselves. Some days we want immediacy and the ability to buy what we want straight away, no fuss. On other days we want to explore things in more depth and garner as much information as possible.

This means that individuals who visit your website can behave differently on each occasion they look at one of your web pages.

So, having a “one size fits all” approach to your product and service web pages does not work. Ask Amazon.

What you need is either to decide, as Amazon has done, that you are only going to target one kind of behavior. Alternatively, if you want to get everyone, you are going to need several web pages to do this for the same product or service. Or you can use clever design elements such as tabs. A good example of this is Currys PC World, which clearly targets the “hunter” kind of behavior, but uses tabs to allow the “trackers” and “explorers” to quickly switch the focus of the page in their favor.

Thinking about the styles of your online shoppers is important if you wish to get your web pages right. Better to do that than rely on myths about shopping based on ill-thought-out ideas and supposition..!