Women are fueling the red-hot auto industry, long dominated by men. They influence over 80 percent of automotive purchases and drive more than 50 percent of autos sold annually in the U.S. Since 2012, women held more drivers licenses than men.
Now more than ever, women hold great sway over the auto industry, from the features in how cars are designed to the other end of the car buying spectrum at the dealer relationship.
The recognition of woman as driver of the auto industry instead of mere accessory is a long way from the ?50s when Dodge patronized women with a car ? replete with pink paint, custom purse, umbrella, and cosmetics case ? called ?La Femme.? Promotional materials called it ?the first and only car designed for Your Majesty, the modern American woman.?
?It would not fly today,? said Brandy Schaffels, editor of AskPatty.com, which provides automotive advice to women. ?It worked then, but the mindset was different. Women were expected to be domestic goddesses. For a man to give his wife a car that was uniquely hers was appropriate at the time.?
Recent research highlights how much female drivers have changed since then.
Women are prudent shoppers, according to a recent study by Jumpstart Automotive, a division of Hearst Magazines focused on shopping trends. The study included one-on-one interviews plus 1,014 respondents online.
?Women want more practical features,? said Libby Murad-Patel, Jumpstart analyst. ?Few (women car buyers) just want a change in style or performance. They trade because of vehicle age, mileage, having children or are growing out of children. They?re looking to get through a life stage with the current vehicle.?
Jumpstart?s study also found women are more willing to switch from new to less expensive pre-owned vehicles and they place value on comfort, seating and safety.
?Women focused on a specific budget; men were more interested in style and performance,? Patel said. ?Women place greater emphasis on purchase price and monthly payment, whereas men look at cost of ownership as a bigger factor.?
And while men like to show off their engines, women have different priorities.
?We want safety, we want performance, we want confident power,? Schaffels said. ?It?s not the size of the engine, but how you use it. We?re not likely to sacrifice fuel economy to boast about horsepower. We want comfort. Women also love technology like lane keep assist and accident mitigation; they get distracted by what?s happening in the back seat. Anything that makes us better drivers is a plus.?
Patel points out that while women are practical shoppers, they reward themselves later in life with luxury cars. It seems women and men aren?t really that different after all.
Women place emphasis on sales approaches that are ethical, low pressure and respect her time.
?Authentic language and voice speaks to them,? Patel said. ?Listen and respond to their needs. Don?t try to sell me what vehicle you?re trying to push off your lot. Identify features that would make their lives more convenient. In advertising, we want to see how the vehicle is used in everyday life. Seeing a car go down California?s Highway 1 is nice, but not practical. And advertising shouldn?t have 20 caveats.?
Women are more likely to value unbiased opinions, relying more on independent research and reviews. They do their homework online and are more likely than men to consult Consumer Reports. They also look to their social network for advice and scrutinize the credibility of journalists.
How women negotiate also differs.
?Women are very loyal relationship buyers,? Schaffels continued. ?Men like the conquest, to know they got a great deal. If a female feels safe, she?s not necessarily digging for the best deal. Women look for a more consultative selling experience and reach to social media to tell peers about her experience.?
Auto dealerships are taking notice.
?To think women aren?t involved, salespeople are fooling themselves,? said Gabe Greene, general manager of Ed Martin Acura in Indianapolis. ?We try not to focus on gender, but rather saving the customer time and providing value. We have a play area for kids and a business center shut off from noise. Recognizing mothers are busy, we have free service loaner cars and extended hours for sales and service.?
Greene is right to focus on what female buyers need and to respect them. During the New York Auto Show last March, Lexus and Be Car Chic hosted a panel discussion among female auto journalists to discuss how dealerships can be more female-friendly. Want to know what really peeves a female buyer?
?Salespeople who won?t speak to her or speaks only to the man,? Schaffels said. ?Don?t talk down to her; don?t assume she doesn?t know. Women are naturally more inquisitive. Dealerships must be ready to answer questions, willing to listen, or she will shut down communication. Don?t give us a know-it-all attitude.?
I?m reminded of a former female boss. She took her 2-year-old Toyota Camry to the dealership because the trunk interior was rusting. The service manager spoke to her in a childlike voice and explained how rust forms. She glared at him and said, ?I know how rust occurs. I?m a chemical engineer. I want to know what you?re going to do about it!?
We?ve come a long way since La Femme with women such as General Motors CEO Mary Barra breaking the automotive glass ceiling. Yet there is still a long way to go. Women only hold 25 percent of jobs in the auto industry, according to 2014 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and less than 20 percent of engineering jobs in the industry.
The narrowing gender gap between the percentage of car buyers and auto industry workers is manifest in the vehicles we drive and the features they contain. Females gravitate to minivans and crossovers because of family responsibilities, but it?s not just a female thing. From stay-at-home dads to families with two dads, all genders benefit from what were once considered ?female features? ? like vacuums in the rear of Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Pacifica minivans.
?We?re really not that different,? Schaffels said. ?We share so much responsibility of the household. Female-friendly features benefit everybody ? features like storage, large glove compartments, a place to put a purse where it will be safe, grocery bag holders. ? My son uses the makeup mirror for his hair. Men are toting around kids these days. It works both ways.?