Study Finds Men Bamboozled By Choices In Supermarkets

When it comes to navigating supermarkets, a new study paints a thoroughly retro picture of American men: Whatever else they're good at, they are pathetic at grocery shopping.

Women still do most of the heavy-duty shopping, says Mandy Putnam, vice president at consulting firm TNS Retail Forward and author of its "Men in Grocery Stores" report. And when men do go to the store, they're "often overwhelmed by the experience," she says, bamboozled by all the choices. They roam the aisles like lost sheep, and are afraid to make their wives mad by bringing home the wrong brand of cereal bar or toothpaste.

For marketers and retailers, Putnam thinks one of the main messages is that sometimes, "there are just too many choices. More is not really more--it's just overwhelming. Supermarkets that can do a better job of editing will be more engaging to men."

Putnam says she was most surprised "by the amount of angst so many men had. They do not want to catch any flak for coming home with the wrong thing. They'd say, 'I'll just tell my wife the store is out of this brand,' rather than admit that they couldn't find it."

One man confided to her: "For me, it's all about how quickly I can get in and get out of the hellhole."

Lists are a big source of the problem. "The majority of men shopping alone shop with grocery lists, but unless a man plays a large role in composing the list, he struggles to fulfill it," the study found. "Lists are rarely organized in a manner that allows someone other than the list creator to shop in order of the list and find all of the desired items."

Putnam says stores could also benefit from rethinking their layouts. "Grocery stores are not organized in ways that support ease of shopping for male grocery shoppers. Men shopping alone circle back through aisles multiple times in their searches, often become overwhelmed in center-store aisles, and often focus their attention within a fairly narrow visual range. But they are more inclined to reach for their cell phones to call their partners rather than ask store personnel for help."

Simple additions like "store maps, item locators and better cell phone access" would make men more effective shoppers," she says. "And bigger and bolder merchandise statements at eye level would attract their attention and increase impulse sales."

The study was based on interviews with TNS Retail Forward's ongoing ShopperScape panel members, as well as observational studies of men shopping alone and with partners in such grocery stores as Whole Foods, Meijer, Kroger, Giant Eagle, and Wal-Mart Super Centers.

It found that of the last 10 "stock-up" trips made in a given household, 5.5 had been done by a woman shopping alone, versus 2.3 by men. Men were more likely to go to the store for "fill-in" trips, to get a single or handful of items: While women made 5.2 of those trips, men made 3.4.

When couples were shopping together, Putnam says, they also seemed to break down into three specific types. "There were definitely plenty of 'he drives, she gathers' shoppers," she says. "And if they had kids with them, usually the cart-driver is also the babysitter. But there are also definitely couples who have a very distinct, efficient, divide-and-conquer shopping strategy."

The third type, which she says are more common at experiential stores such as Whole Foods, "is a couple that treat the trip to the grocery store like a date. You see them stopping for a coffee and meandering through the plants."

Putnam says she was also struck by the similarities of the baskets (never carts) of single men on Friday nights. "Whether they were very poor or very affluent, they bought the same types of foods--some kind of beer or alcohol, some kind of meat or cheese from the deli, some kind of snack food that if you lit it on fire it would probably blow up, and some kind of 'vegetable,' usually a salsa."

Of course, not everyone agrees. "This is such a 'Leave it to Beaver' representation of the world," says Herbert Jack Rotfeld, professor of marketing at Auburn University and editor of the Journal of Consumer Affairs. "It's sexist. It's certainly true that many shoppers can be overwhelmed by too many choices," he says, adding that there can be great logic in retailers making some decisions based on demographics. "Older people can struggle with the larger layout of big-box stores," he says, "and my wife does have trouble reaching the highest shelf in many stores," he says.

"But the only statement we can make with confidence is that demographics alone are very poor predictors of how people think and act in the marketplace."