Secrets Of The Male Shopper; Marketers have been missing half the male population. They’re finally paying attention

Sep 4, 2006

Wall Street Journal
By Nanette Byrnes

A couple of years ago, you couldn’t escape the metrosexual. He was everywhere, with his Paul Smith pinstripes, $100 haircuts, and chemical tan. This character became so much a part of the zeitgeist that some regular guys began wondering if they were metrosexual. He seemed hip and urban. Women, it was said, loved him because he smelled good and knew gabardine from twill. And if a man wasn’t a metrosexual, he risked being tagged as the metro’s alter ego: the retrosexual, a guy’s guy who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing chartreuse.

In the Age of the Metrosexual, mission shopping (know what I want, know where to get it) was out. A visit to Barneys or Nordstrom became an indulgence in style. On cable, ratings soared as the Fab Five of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy repurposed the style-challenged as hip and urbane. Conde Nast Publications jumped in with Cargo, a shopping magazine (of all things) for men. From the image factories of Madison Avenue came a slew of ads aimed at the new, preening male shopper. And the folks in white lab coats got busy cooking up lotions and potions with names like Nivea for Men Revitalizing Eye Relief Q10.

Now Madison Ave has turned on the metrosexual. Why? Because he’s half the man he was cracked up to be. Not only is this archetype too feminine for most men, he’s also pretty rare — maybe one- fifth of the U.S. male population, according to a recent study by Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc. As for the retrosexual, star of the sophomoric beer ad, he’s not that common either. Put all the metros and retros together, and they probably add up to fewer than two in every five men, says Leo Burnett.

So who is the elusive man in the middle of the two extremes? Truth is, marketers are only beginning to understand the secrets of the male shopper. It stands to reason that just as women break down into subsectors, so do men. By targeting just the metro and the retro, Mad Ave has been ignoring half the male population. Largely forgotten are the millions of boomer dads, who shop a lot more than their fathers or grandfathers ever did. Also often overlooked is the army of men in their 20s and 30s who care about their appearance but still like to drink beer and watch sports. The male teen is another big shopper, a sophisticated consumer with the Web research skills to give him an outsize say in family purchases. We don’t hear a lot about him, either. (Our guide to these forgotten guys and their metro and retro brethren is above.)

The challenge will be reaching these men and moving beyond the heavy focus on the extremes. “Men are portrayed in a buffoonish, sophomoric way or as sensitive, feminized men,” says Erv Frederick, who heads the Miller Lite brand. “The bulk are somewhere in the middle, and those are men who haven’t been spoken to.” No lie. According to Leo Burnett, 79% of American men say they can barely recognize themselves in advertisements.

The creation of the metro was supposed to rectify that problem by speaking to a generation of men who have taken on many traditional female roles and, yes, buy a lot of things — diapers, skin creams, vacuum cleaners — that women have long shopped for. Consider the explosion in male grooming, where sales of men-only products surged 14% in 1995, according to NPD Group. And in recent years, the average growth in men’s apparel sales has held steady at nearly 5.5%, in some years even outpacing the growth in sales of women’s clothing.

With the metro losing his mojo, marketers and researchers are now scrambling to come up with a more nuanced view of the male consumer. And a range of companies are going after men as never before. KB Home is building townhouses for single men. Adidas Group and Coca-Cola Co. are stepping up their efforts to win over teen males. And Dyson, maker of the revolutionary British vacuum cleaner, is a hit with boomer dads.


It’s a big switch. After all, men have been a marketing afterthought for more than a century. Starting in the late 1800s, when Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan began teaching generations of women how to be Type A wives and mothers, brand managers painted a giant bull’s-eye on the female consumer. They’ve taken relentless aim ever since. “’He makes. She buys:’ That’s the calculation that turned women into shoppers and men into providers,” says James B. Twitchell, who teaches English and advertising at the University of Florida.

And if it’s confusing trying to sell stuff to men, that’s partly because many guys are confused, too. Society has changed a lot, blurring notions of gender identity. Not only have women asserted themselves at work and at home since the 1960s, but bastions of male bonding — the barbershop, golf club, U.S. Army — have largely become unisex, a shrinking of the male habitat that Twitchell highlights in his book, Where Men Hide. Women are acting more like men. And men are acting more like women.

Of course, large swaths of maledom remain defiantly macho. But younger men — those in their 20s and 30s — grew up in a world where women held increasing sway. With nearly half of all U.S. marriages failing, many of these guys were raised by a single mom. Growing up under her roof, it’s only natural that they would adopt more of her traits, interests, and habits than their predecessors. “Men under 35 shop more like their sisters than their fathers and grandfathers,” says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail. “They shop the same kinds of places. They’re not just in and out fast, but are people who like to browse, use shopping as a community experience.”

That’s why Madison Avenue so fervently embraced the metro in late 2003. Where did he come from? Like many fashion-forward individuals, the metro was born in Britain. Author Mark Simpson, the self-described “skinhead Oscar Wilde,” coined the term in the mid-’90s to describe a new breed of consumer-narcissist. A flattering appellation it wasn’t. By the time the metro surfaced in the U.S. 10 years later, he was a much more appealing character. In four months, the metro went from the subject of an offbeat New York Times story to a cultural phenomenon worthy of his own South Park episode. Oh yes, and he acquired the feminine persona we’ve become familiar with.

As the South Park creators knew instinctively, the metro was ripe for satire and snickers. For many straight men, the handle has gay overtones. For macho dudes, it spells s-i-s-s-y. And even guys comfortable with their inner female are loath to call themselves metrosexual. Consider Mick Malisic. The 32-year-old marketing director is happy to spend $1,500 for a made-to-measure suit and hang out at the Ralph Lauren shop in Palo Alto, Calif., for 90-minute fittings. When we caught up with him, he had five pairs of $500 slacks on order. But talk about a reluctant metro. “If I look from the outside,” he says, “I guess I’d be [one].”

However imperfect, the metro label reflects real changes in male shopping behavior. Yes, it’s true that Cargo closed earlier this year, and Queer Eye has suffered a ratings meltdown. But don’t read too much into that. The ’90s, after all, produced the lad mags FHM, Maxim, and Stuff. These publications are the guy variant of Good Housekeeping and Vogue. They have provided macho camouflage for men to shop without taking abuse from buddies.

The August issue of Men’s Health magazine (motto: “Tons of Useful Stuff”) tells a tale. Two in every five editorial pages hype brand-name products — dietary supplements, clothes, cameras, tortilla chips, grills. That’s on top of 100 pages of old-fashioned ad copy aimed at separating the reader from his paycheck. The message seems to be hitting. A study commissioned by GQ found that 84% of men said they purchase their own clothes, compared with 65% four years ago. And 52% of retailers surveyed said their typical male customer shopped at a store at least once a month, up from 10% in 2001.

Nowhere have marketers gone after men more assiduously than in the grooming business. This is a natural fit since men have long used aftershave and cologne (perfume, by another name). Moisturizers and skin creams are a small step beyond the male comfort zone. And in many cases, these products are marketed under the health and fitness label. Finally, brands such as Axe have employed a tactic that has worked down the ages: We promise that if you use this product, women will find you more desirable. Not only are grooming sales up sharply, but companies are expected to roll out 800 new men-only products in 2006, according to consulting firm Datamonitor, up from 459 four years ago.


Pirooz Sarshar and Michael Gilman have ridden the grooming wave. Eight years ago, and with just $5,000, the duo started a men’s skin-care business. Today they’re doing $4 million a year at two Grooming Lounges in the D.C. area and by selling products over the Web. A typical customer: Greg Gary, who works in sales at recruiting firm Spherion and has regular manicures and pedicures. Gary, 35, felt out of place in unisex spas and salons. Not at the Grooming Lounge. “Alcohol — and ESPN on television,” he exults. “What more could you ask for?”

Yet even in a category that has become acceptable to many men, it pays to understand that guys don’t necessarily respond to the come-ons or products that get women swiping their plastic. Metros may be susceptible, but men like Jonas Wanning, a 29-year-old real estate executive who lives in New York, worry about venturing too far into girl territory.

Wanning is what we’ve chosen to call a modern male. He’s picky about his skin cream, uses Crest Whitestrips three times a week, and is contemplating a facial. Like many guys of his generation, he is used to sharing the stage with women. They tend to pay attention to their appearance, so men have to, as well. “The better you look, the further you get out there,” he says. But Wanning is still a guy’s guy. He plays baseball on Sundays and covets a Ducati motorcycle. Wanning recently got his first manicure, but it was a little nerve-racking, truth be told, because the nail shop had a big plate glass window.

The evolution in how men shop and what they shop for goes far beyond the shave and haircut. Men are marrying later, and once hitched they’re breaking the old rules. The single male home buyer has traditionally been all but ignored by builders obsessed with married couples and single women. But at the new KB Home development in Cary, N.C., a townhome designed by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. is expressly outfitted for single men. With dark wood cabinets, black granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances, it has a big kitchen and oversize dining room. Gray walls, a doublewide shower in the master bedroom rather than a bath, and a higher-than-average sink all nod to the guy they’re trying to attract. Of the 28 homes sold since the June 24 grand opening, 11 went to single men.

Thanks to the two-career household and fathers’ increasing interest in raising their kids, men are putting in their two cents when it comes to buying for them. The makers of the high-concept Bugaboo stroller deliberately went after dads, designing a black-and-chrome contraption with a set of tires that wouldn’t be out of place on a dirt bike. No kids or tear-jerking moments in Bugaboo International’s ads. They focus on engineering and design.

For companies that see all men as potential customers, it’s a trick to find a way to speak to the metro, retro, and everyone in between. A safe bet is to play to a guy’s inner geek. That’s what Dyson did. Its ads focus on the vacuum cleaner’s revolutionary technology, while the machine’s see-through collection module takes in-store demonstrations to a whole new level. Before Dyson entered the U.S., men barely registered in this category. Today, says the company, 40% of its customers are men, and its machine is the No. 1 vacuum in the land.

For topics even less compelling to men than vacuuming, humor helps. Not exactly the old locker-room variety, but something with a bit more irony. In May, Philips Norelco launched a campaign for the Bodygroom, a $35 electric shaver designed to remove hair “below the neck.” One can only imagine the squirming that went on at Philips’ buttoned-down Stamford (Conn.) headquarters about how to, um, position this product.

Ad agency Tribal DDB created a Web site ( where a guy dressed in a white bathrobe describes the surprising uses to which Bodygroom can be put. Naughty words are bleeped as pieces of fruit resembling certain male body parts pop onto the screen. The clincher: the promise of an “extra optical inch.” Guys loved it. Visitors spent 6 1/2 minutes on the site on average and madly forwarded it to friends. For eight weeks following its May 2 launch, the shaver was No. 1 on Amazon’s health and personal care category.


Not that the locker room should be off-limits. Every social revolution begets a backlash, and the unisexing of society is no different. For companies targeting regular guys, pandering to the retro can be highly effective. That’s what Burger King did recently with its “Manthem” TV spot, featuring an average Joe spoofing the Helen Reddy classic I Am Woman. Likewise, Procter & Gamble Co. has repositioned its Old Spice brand as Old Spice High Endurance (and all that that implies). Its site features a woman in a bikini with the tagline: “When she sweats she’s sexy. When you sweat, you stink.”

For many men, modern life has stoked nostalgia for their own place — a boys’ club, if you will. Smart businesspeople are catering to that urge. One is Joe Grondin, founder of Roosters, a chain of barber shops based in Round Rock, Tex. At Roosters, the plasma TVs are set to the game, the armchairs are leather, and the beers are in the fridge. “Men want a place to go for themselves,” says Grondin, by way of explaining how the number of Roosters franchises has doubled to 15 since this time last year. “We got in touch with our feminine side and learned to cry, and women burned their bras. Now we’re back in the same place. We haven’t been on this planet for millions of years without deciding who guys are and who girls are.”

Clearly selling to today’s man is a confounding undertaking. But wait till his grandsons, sons, or kid brothers start tossing their disposable incomes around. Today’s teen males are little like their forebears. At first glance, Dexter Driscoll seems like a typical 14-year-old. He swims and runs cross country, listens to the pop band Fall Out Boy, and cherishes classic horror movies. But he’s no conformist. Driscoll, the son of a financial adviser in Plymouth, Mass., has no need to fit in. He varies his look depending on his mood: preppy one day, boot-cut Levis and T-shirt the next. He is levelheaded and self-assured. Driscoll is what Teen Research Unlimited Inc. calls the maturiteen. These kids are more savvy, responsible, and pragmatic than previous cohorts, thanks in part to their boomer parents’ tendency to treat them as equals.

It goes without saying that teens have mastered technology. Many picked up their first mouse as toddlers. As a result, says Janice Lee, co-founder of teen researcher Look-Look Inc., it’s not at all uncommon for teenagers to conduct the Web research on big family purchases such as cars and electronics. Conservatively speaking, teen boys in the U.S. spend something like $100 billion each year, but their informal role as in-house shopping consultant amplifies their impact.

Another thing: The interactivity of the Web has fostered in them a radical view of brands. They simply don’t assign ownership of those brands to the companies that created them. Take a look at YouTube or to see the rip-offs of ads for everything from the Army to Apple computers. “You have to be able to let go,” says Kevin George, who runs the $400 million US Axe bodyspray business for parent Unilever Group. “It’s about creating products people want to interact with rather than flashing a 30-second spot in front of them.”

The more these teens can alter what they’re buying, the happier they are. One of the most popular brands with male teens today is Adidas. The sneaker maker’s in-store events, where kids can decorate their own shoes, is a sign the company gets it. T-shirt Web store is among the top five sites with teen males, who like the designs but also embrace its democratic ethos. Over 300,000 registered users design, review, and buy the T-shirts, which are produced in limited runs of 1,000.

Big brands don’t have the luxury of being built communally from the ground up, but it’s especially important for them not to fake their way into acceptance with teens. A recent Coke Zero commercial featuring singers performing on an urban rooftop did O.K. with young men. But it tanked with some teens who found it phony, says Look-Look’s Lee. A recent Pepto-Bismol commercial starring breakdancers…well, let’s not even go there.

It’s going to take most marketers a while to get their minds around this generation’s activist approach to consumption, but they’re working on it. With 70 million echo boomers in their teens and early 20s, they’d be dumb not to. The metrosexual forced a fresh look at just who the male consumer is, and that will help marketers suss out the next generation. They may have rushed too fast to embrace that self-obsessed guy from Britain, but he taught them there’s more to the modern man than a beer-chugging sports nut. Thanks to the metrosexual, marketing to men will never be the same.

A Handy Guide To The Male Shopper

WARNING: Guys may or may not recognize themselves among these archetypes. But a century after marketers drew a big bull’s-eye on the female consumer, slicing up the male market is long overdue. Anything to get past the fixation on the metro and the retro.

The Metrosexual

Despite widespread reports of his demise, this affluent urban sophisticate aged 20 to 50 absolutely shops on. To him, it’s more than mere commerce. He’s not just buying the things he needs, he imbues his consumerism with a deeper meaning, quality, and beauty. Think loafers as objets d’art. Thanks to him, marketing to men may never be the same. Nor will men’s grooming. The likes of P&G, Beiersdorf, and Polo Ralph Lauren are doing good business with the metro.

The Maturiteen

This guy is more savvy, responsible, mature, and pragmatic than previous cohorts. Culture watchers attribute his poise to baby boomer parents who treated their kids as equals. He’s a technology master, so he’s adept at online research and often acts as an in-house shopping consultant. These boys never knew a time without the Web, and its interactivity has nurtured in them a radical view of brands. They own them. Adidas, Sony, and Unilever are especially skillful at playing along.

The Modern Man

Neither retro nor metro, he’s something in the middle. A sophisticated consumer in his 20s and 30s, he’s a bigger shopper than his dad was but just as much a Seahawks fan. He’s comfortable with women but doesn’t find shopping with them much fun. Think of it this way: Moisturizer and hair gel are perfectly ordinary to him; a manicure is a tougher call. Philips Norelco used locker room humor to get the modern man comfortable with its below-the-neck shaver, Bodygroom.

The Dad

Is any species of guy more ignored? Once men get married and have a few kids, they drop off the radar screen. When they do appear at all, chances are it’s as the goofy father looking for advice from his kid on how to be cool. Yet these men tend to be in their peak earning years. Plus, they are almost as likely to be found strolling down the diaper aisle as mom is. Smart companies such as Dyson and Patek Philippe are reaching out to these guys.

The Retrosexual

If the metrosexual champions the female ethos with a “Go girl!” the retrosexual is screaming “Stop!” This traditionalist has lived through the same cultural turmoil and consumerism as the modern man and the metro, but rejects feminism and happily wallows in traditional male behavior. He is nostalgic for the way things were in the good old days, before the Fab Five and moisturizers for men. Burger King has this dude nailed. So does P&G’s Old Spice brand.

Playbook: How To Talk To A Man

It’s tricky finding a way to reach the metro, retro, and everyone in between

Stop Boring Him

Miller Lite’s much discussed “Man Laws” campaign combines humorous TV spots of men discussing modern etiquette and a complex Web site where visitors average 11 minutes per visit. The new approach, a far cry from its former “Tastes Great — Less Filling” simplicity, was partly a response to concerns that the monotony of traditional beer ads has contributed to an industrywide slump in recent years.

Get Him Talking

Yes, guys believe in word of mouth, too. British vacuum cleaner maker Dyson reports that 75% to 85% of its sales come from personal recommendations. A visit to online review site shows guys are among the machine’s biggest boosters. Naughty humor got men e-mailing around a Web ad for Philips Norelco’s Bodygroom — making the shaver the top product on Amazon for two months.

Keep It Basic

Guys are open to all kinds of things once considered “girly,” from pink shirts to face lotion, but they want things simple. A startup called Amenity launched a five-step moisturizing system in glass jars. It even included a badger-hair shaving brush. Guys found it too fussy, and in September Amenity will relaunch with three products, all in durable tubes that can be tossed in a gym bag.

Don’t Fake It

Especially among the younger set, failing at this is lethal. Favorite brands cater to male teens’ desire to mold their world, from voting on the best T-shirts on to painting their own Adidas kicks. They want to have an impact, and they’re quick to sniff out a phony, such as the widely mocked campaigns by Coke Zero and Pepto- Bismol, which failed to connect to the hipsters they were courting.

Copyright 2006 McGraw-Hill, Inc.