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African Sun

RR African SunMy consulting practice takes me all over the world. Through my travels, I have the unique opportunity to be a student of human nature and behavior – especially when it comes to the retail marketplace. Recently I visited South Africa. This story is my observation of an emerging DIY trend, framed by a vivid childhood memory. For me, the past is prelude, especially in a key attitudinal shift with your most important customers, women.

Where It All Began

My first crush was on Mrs. Donahue who lived next door. She could not have been more different than my mother. She had short, curly black hair, painted her nails in bright colors, and never seemed to be without red lipstick and perfume. I remember her in sleeveless blouses and tight pedal pushers. There was nothing about her that wasn’t unambiguously female in the 1960s, but she was far from helpless. Mrs. Donahue was a dedicated hands-on DIY’er. She always seemed to be painting a room and ceiling, refinishing a bureau, or planting flowerbeds. Looking up at her on a ladder with a paint roller in her hand is an image I carry with me to this day, more than a half a century later. While my father had his wood shop and power tools and slavishly constructed furniture that even as a small child, I recognized as amateurish and ugly, Mrs. Donahue made things beautiful easily, often with a smudge on her cheek and a smile.

The roughest patch in my parent’s marriage was shortly before my father retired. Thinking she could share my father’s interest in woodworking, my mother took a course and produced as her first project, a handsome Shaker Dry Sink cabinet that sits in her guest room to this day. Recognizing that she trumped his talent on her very first attempt, my father didn’t speak to her for days. In their retirement, the wood shop was known as my father’s “pout-house”. My mother would visit, but never stay.

We as a species take pleasure in doing things that coordinate our sense of esthetics with our manual skills. Some of us do it for a living, but in the 21st century, many more of us do it because it gives us personal satisfaction on a basic level. Call it art, call it craft, call it home improvement: almost all of our DIY endeavors are facilitated by tools and supplies. Paint, brushes, saws, nuts and bolts, nails and hammers; the shopping list is endless. Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, Michaels and others fulfill those shopping needs. While the craft-focused stores have always recognized Mrs. Donahue, the rest of the industry struggles to see women as customers, much less as influencers to the sale. And looking more deeply, the motivational path to purchase is unique to gender: men buy paint only when painting is needed; women buy paint when they are looking for change.

One of the most important evolutions in modern retailing is the recognition that traditional the gender divides — selling fashion, cosmetics and food to women; and tools, technology and cars to men — just no longer works.

Small hardware chains like Ace and TrueValue got the memo and have raised the number of women working on their store floors. Knowledgeable, gender-appropriate help overcomes any price-point issue; after all, the point of DIY is to interact, ask questions and help get the job done right. The modern small hardware store competes with the Big Boxes mainly by making customers feel good about what they are doing and not intimidating them when they don’t know the technical name of something (but smartly describe it, for example, as the ‘thing-ity-bob’ that covers the shower drain). Speaking in the vernacular of the customer is a powerful selling tool.

One of my favorite examples of enlightened DIY design was a new prototype COMEX store (the Mexican paint merchant) in Puebla where almost every wall surface and ceiling was used to showcase colors and textures of the offerings. In addition, the staff was a mix of stylish women in the Mrs. Donahue-mold, and young hipsters who knew it wasn’t how much you spent in rent that made your apartment cool, but how creative your paint job was.

The essence of home improvement stretches across class and ethnicity. The rich may hire a designer and contractor for one job, and then take pleasure in installing the shelving in their garages themselves. In emerging markets, an upwardly mobile middle class is drawn to house pride as an extension of their change in status. We are reminded again that the best merchants of the 21st century are evangelical. They welcome everyone walking through their doors and pay special attention to the novice visitor. Making a store female-friendly is just good business.

Johannesburg, South Africa, sits at almost 6000 feet above sea level, but the recent African February afternoon sun was strong, leaving us warmer than expected. There were 10 or 12 of us; myself and a senior management group from Builders Warehouse, the DIY chain acquired by Walmart and renamed Massbuild. The chain is the local market leader and has the wind in its sails aimed at the emerging middle-class of Sub-Sahara Africa. Double-digit growth, impressive same-store comp sales, and a fresh approach to the category further evidences where real innovation is happening: outside North America.

The management group looked like a bunch of aging Rugby players: broad shoulders, hard hands and expanding guts. As innovative as they are, as is so often still the case, the only female in the group was the Human Resources Director. In the parking lot that day was a series of canvas-covered banquet tables loaded with garden supplies on sale. As we approached the outdoor display, our lone female executive demurred and headed for the canopy protecting the front door, escaping that mid-afternoon sun. “Who buys garden supplies?” I asked. The answer was women, representing over 70% of customers. On the inside to the right of the store’s front door, less than 50 feet from where we stood in the parking lot, Builders Warehouse sells shade – umbrellas and canopies in the garden furniture section. My first thought was, ‘why don’t they sell these products outside in the sun, making the garden displays more appealing to the female customers that buy them?’

Sometimes we have to go all the way to Africa to learn more about ourselves. If you want to sell to women, observe them, and start listening to them. They are your true navigators, and the source of critical marketing intelligence. My advice? Cross-merchandise your products and rethink your placements. And always give them some mid-day shade.

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