Man the Shopper?

In 1966 Richard Lee and Irven DeVore hosted a symposium titled “Man the Hunter.” The symposium resulted in a book of the same title and attempted to bring together for the first time a comprehensive look at recent ethnographic research on hunter gatherers. The concepts that came out of the work (and work by archaeologists) were streamlined, simplified and led to one of the most endearing myths of the modern age: Men hunt, women gather.  Men are driven be the need to complete a job, that’s about it. Over time, this basic tenet has found its way into how we think about men’s consumption and shopping habits – men are driven by the need to shop ( i.e. to perform tasks) in the simplest, most efficient way.  Simple, tidy theory. The only problem with this simple, tidy formula is flat wrong.

From a purely biological stand point it might make sense. The theory goes that over the bulk of human prehistory gender roles were established wherein men, due to sheer size and strength, hunted large game and therefore were less inclined to use environmental cues and linguistic subtlety to hunt down and kill animals.  Meanwhile, given the task of rearing the young and gathering the bulk of the food that was actually consumed on a daily basis, women became hardwired for language, cooperation and the ability to tease out subtleties in the environment. No doubt there is a shred of truth in all this, but unfortunately it overlooks some major flaws in the logic. The problem is that cooperative hunting is extremely complex and relies on interacting intimately with the environment and other members of the hunting party. On top of that, while men were out hunting for large animals, it might take a damn long time to track it, kill it and then get it back home.  Consequently, men foraged and hunted small game along the way.  In other words, they were doing the same tasks as women and thus, the same evolutionary principles should be in play.  But the real key to all this is the linguistic element.

Bear with me for a moment, because this talk about language where the myth of male shopping patters as an extension of “Man the Hunter” breaks down. Human beings are the only animal with the capacity for language.  With have both wonderfully large areas of the brain devoted to it and a general physiology that allows us to create the sounds we do (e.g. the hyoid bone). Why does it matter?  Because language is inherently symbolic.  The sounds in the word “tree” have nothing to do with the object itself, for example.  The long and the short of it is that the human brain and the ways in which we understand the world are hardwired to make use of symbolism.  And shopping is a highly symbolic act.  Overlooks the underlying behavioral structures and you miss tremendous opportunities. It’s all rather heady stuff, but the result is simple. Context shapes everything and whether hunting or shopping, there is more to our behavior than meets the eye.

Men will frequently say they dislike shopping and that they treat it like a task.  Shopping is a job and all about efficiency and finding the best deal (this is the point at which all of us men are supposed to eat a steak and thump our chests).  Men say it, but is it true?  No, it is not. We say it because as a culture we have been trained to say we hunt, we solve problems and we see shopping as a task.  It is a cultural norm we use to define our masculinity, not a reflection of reality.  As with all shopping, there is an element of performing a task – we shop for groceries because we die if we don’t eat.  Men, and marketers, like to think that’s the end of the discussion, but it is not.  Shopping, unlike consuming, involves a series of subconscious, symbolic interactions and men, just like women, respond to these symbols.  So what the examples?

First, men often use shopping as a tool to teaching values and cultural norms.  It is most obvious when you see a father and son in a sporting goods store.  It isn’t enough to track down a new baseball glove. Fathers use this time, this shopping time, to teach the boy how to select a good glove, how to be a good and sport and how to bond with the child.  Watch a father shop with his daughter and you see similar teaching moments emerge. The retail environment becomes a stage on which he can impart wisdom and reinforce his role as father.

Which leads to the second example.  Men use shopping to establish and reinforce gender and marital roles. For example, when husbands and wives shop for groceries together, there is more going on than simple provisioning of the household. Men frequently slip items into the cart that are not on the list. The catch is that they do this when their wives can see them. It isn’t about sneaking a treat into the cart. It is about using shopping as a means by which playfulness and sexuality are rekindled. In terms of the general shopping process, men defer to their wives’ expertise in all things domestic, even when they are perfectly capable of selecting the right foods. Body language becomes more timid and responses to question take on more hedges and/or apologies. The shopping becomes a platform for defining household roles.

Which leads to the third example.  Men using shopping to display skills and mastery.  In a retail setting that makes men feel as if they articulating their knowledge and skill to the world, they become more likely to make random purchases.  Watch men in hardware stores or when buying a car.  They tend to exhibit more non-verbal cues of strength (standing straighter, more use of the precision grip, etc.) and tend to spend more time examining objects in detail than they would in other settings.  The catch is that they frequently have no more expertise than anyone else.  In this instance, shopping is a way of establishing status and self-worth.

Finally, though they may not want to admit it, men use shopping as play time.  The retail experience is a playground, plain and simple.  The catch is that the space needs to make men feel like they have license to play and explore.

So, Man the Hunter is a myth but what does it mean to you? Simply, quit thinking about Man the Shopper as if he is exclusively task driven. Take advantage of the symbolic and subconscious triggers that will get him to buy more products and become an advocate for your store.

  • 60% of men are using mobile apps when shopping.  Do more than provide deals. Use language that reinforces his role as a good hunter, teacher and/or spouse.  Design interfaces as games.  Provide outlets for displaying his skills to the world. The point is that he needs more than 10% off his purchase.
  • Develop retail environments and signage that reinforce his need to show his prowess and intelligence.  Use language and imagery that can be used as tools for teaching his children, not just as points of information throughout the store.
  • Use signage and displays that make him feel comfortable in a seemingly non-male setting.  Signage should be used as part of the overarching retail design strategy.  Incorporate “hidden” treasures in the retail setting that make him want to explore.
  • Incorporate male-focused elements into your general media strategy. If you sell candles (a traditionally female target audience), consider partnering to set up a display at the meat counter of a grocery (men, after all, are the “expert” grillers in most homes.

The end result in all of this is simple. Stop thinking about men as hunters in the shopping environment and you will sell more merchandise. Keep thinking of them in this tired, old cliché and watch an overlooked opportunity pass you by.

By Gavin

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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