DETROIT – Women now buy nearly half the new cars in the U.S., a sharp increase compared with a generation ago, and the auto industry is trying to demonstrate that it’s keeping up with the times when it showcases the latest models to the public.
Auto shows now offer cooking demonstrations, private tours and an increasing number of male models to appeal to female visitors.
But that hardly means the industry has shelved a staple of nearly 100 years of auto shows: having female models preening beside the latest sports car or SUV.
The shows, which are run by dealers, say they’re trying to attract more women with events like fashion shows. The North American International Auto Show in Detroit doesn’t keep track of visitors by gender, but the New York International Auto Show says 40 percent of its 1 million visitors in 2013 were women, up from 29 percent two years before. Spokesman Chris Sams said the show made a point of reaching out to women, using more females in its ads and hosting special parties and tours. It even held a contest to find the best place to store a purse in a car.
But contrast that with the scene at media previews for this year’s Detroit auto show, which opens to the public today. General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra, who just this week became the first female head of a major automaker, walked the floor in a conservative black suit past Corvette models in skimpy dresses and leather jackets. Young women in towering heels handed out breath mints around the corner from plunging necklines at Infiniti.
“Face it. Automotive is a men’s industry and it’s always a novelty to be among the women who are there,” said Brandy Schaffels, the editor of AskPatty.com, an automotive site for women.
But as females gain more income and buying power – not to mention corner offices – automakers may have to rethink using the short skirt to grab attention.
Some automakers have already done away with models altogether. At Honda’s stand in Detroit, the focus was on the brand’s new Fit subcompact and a futuristic fuel-cell car called the FCEV. The company says it tries to appeal to the broadest range of customers at its show stands.