Nation/World

Hardware Stores Soften Up Edges To Attract Women Large Retailers Realize Females Play Key Role In Home Improvement

Angy Smith admits that her efforts to “soften” hardware stores won’t go over well with all her customers.

As manager of the tile and floor covering aisles at Home Depot’s warehouse store in Orange, Smith knows there are macho types out there who view her as an interloper hell-bent on destroying one of the last bastions of male dominance.

“It’s a pretty aisle,” Smith, 31, said of her newly renovated section. “But it’s still a hardware aisle. We’re never going to be frilly because we’re a warehouse.”

But hardware aisles are indeed changing as national chains and mom-and-pop hardware stores scramble to draw more women in the front door.

Operators are betting that the kinder, gentler approach to hardware also will play well with men who wouldn’t know a crescent wrench from crescent roll.

Americans will spend an estimated $127.5 billion at hardware and home improvement stores in 1995, according to the Indianapolis-based National Retail Hardware Assn.

Women cast a deciding vote in at least 73 percent of every consumer purchase made, said Jann Leeming, publisher of About Women Inc., a Boston-based market research firm. So it stands to reason that women are increasingly likely to be calling the shots at hardware and home improvement stores.

And, as more women become heads of households, they are more likely to be patching holes in walls, tiling floors or installing ceiling fans.

But, while it may sound sexist, hardware store operators agree that most women aren’t as comfortable as men when roaming the aisles of hardware stores.

Societal stereotyping gets the blame: Dads who know their way around a tool bench are more likely to pass along their hardware tips to junior rather than to a daughter. And, while boys are invited to tag along during hardware store trips, little girls still are more likely to accompany mom to the grocery stores.

Home Depot began to soften its hard edges after extensive customer interviews showed that many women were uncomfortable with the inherently noisy nature of the Atlanta-based chain’s massive warehouse-style stores.

“This is the strongest ‘women aisle’ in the store,” Smith said, as she walked down the renovated tile and floor covering aisle, with its stronger lighting and new displays. “No woman would be afraid to shop here.”

HomeBase Inc., the Irvine-based warehouse-style operator, is adding extensive showrooms to give consumers - increasingly, they are women, often with children and husband in tow - ideas on how to remodel kitchens and baths. HomeBase also is strengthening its garden shop offerings in a bid to draw wider array of shoppers. “The tradition or mythology was that dad ran down to the hardware store on Saturday morning,” said HomeBase Executive Vice-President Mark Baker. “But a significant part of our population is women, and they’re making decisions.”

Judith Langer, a New York-based market researcher who studies consumer shopping habits, said that male-dominated retail stores must learn to treat women as “intelligent, but not as well-informed as some men on some things. You should never treat them as ignorant.”



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