The Richer Sex

Article excerpt

Byline: Rana Foroohar

Companies had better cater to women.

Anyone who's seen the new Sex and the City movie (not something I necessarily encourage) may have noticed a subtle shift in the girls' accessories. No, not the evolution from Manolos to Louboutin stilettos. Carrie & Co. have also traded their Mac computers for sleek, Vivienne Tam-designed "digital clutch" laptops made by Hewlett-Packard. The machines are gorgeously styled: they look like beautiful makeup cases, with elegant, piano-like keyboards.

More important from HP's point of view: as with any sought-after fashion item, they command a premium. The laptops start at $599, about double the price of comparable products, meaning higher profit margins. And HP isn't the only company that's noticed there's money to be made catering to women in this rough economic climate.

Even before the financial crisis, the spending power of women was increasing in both rich and poor countries. The downturn has accelerated the trend, particularly in the United States. American men lost more jobs (they worked in the hardest-hit areas like financial services and manufacturing), whereas women started more companies. The pay gap has also continued to decrease. In 35 percent of double-income households in the United States, wives now make more than their husbands, up from 28 percent five years ago. Assuming the trend continues, the average woman will make more than the average man by 2024.

What's amazing is that more companies haven't cottoned on to this. The most obviously female-oriented sectors, like food, packaged goods, and apparel, do a decent job of appealing to their core customers. (Remember the Dove ads from a couple of years ago that celebrated all sizes of female bodies? They drove up soap sales 600 percent.) But there are still many industries--cars, travel, health care, and consumer electronics--where women are neglected in product development and marketing, even though they make the majority of purchasing decisions. "A lot of the people making these decisions at top firms are still older men," says demographer Maddy Dychtwald, the author of Influence, a book on female economic power.

In technology, Apple's success may force some changes. …