How Not to Do Target Marketing

Will women buy a toolbox just because it’s pink? Don’t assume you know anything about what your customers really want.

Shopping for my stepson is always a challenge. So when his birthday rolled around, we found out what he wanted from his best friend: a stand-up rolling toolbox. That made perfect sense for Steve, a carpenter who had recently moved in with his girlfriend and had nowhere to store his many, many tools.

His father and I headed to the local Sears, which is known for its line of tools and toolboxes. There we found not only a great gift for Steve, but also a great lesson on how not to do target marketing.

We wandered among the many choices comparing prices and features. Did Steve really need drawers that could handle more than 25 pounds of weight? Yes, we decided, he did. Then we found a toolbox that seemed to have unusually solid construction for its pricing. There was only one problem: It was bright pink. (In case you think I’m kidding, here it is.) We stood there for a few moments wondering whether Steve would actually tolerate a pink toolbox. No, his father decided. What the heck was Sears thinking?

Well it’s pretty obvious, what the marketers were thinking, isn’t it? (For the record, Cala Industries makes the toolbox, though Sears is one of its major distribution channels.) Growing numbers of women are doing their own carpentry and working as contractors. While Sears, Lowe’s, Home Depot and others fought over the traditional male-dominated toolbox market, this growing segment was under-served. Excellent logic thus far, but then it seems to go off the rails. Here’s the approach they seem to have followed:

1. Don’t ask customers what they want.

OK, I have to admit I don’t know for a fact that Sears skipped the market research on this one. But, try as I might, I just can’t imagine sweat-stained, nail gun-toting, hard-working female carpenters confiding in a focus group that their jobs would be so much more pleasurable if only they could store their tools in… something pink.

2. Be as superficial as possible.

I don’t do carpentry myself, but I do live in the country where I frequently dig rocks out of the earth and stack firewood. What I really appreciate at these moments are tools and equipment designed to fit my 5’4″ frame. Work gloves sturdy enough to handle wood that fit my small hands are especially hard to find. Sometimes I come across pink ones, but most often they’re inexpensive fabric things that would shred in the first hour of working with wood.

Actually designing tools suited to female bodies probably would have won Sears a lot of points with the audience it’s trying to reach. But that would take a lot more effort and thought than simply painting something pink.

3. Don’t think things through.

It appeared the pink toolboxes were not a huge success. Or at least, Sears seemed pretty eager to unload them. Not only were they quite attractively priced, a store employee showed us a card the company had provided showing some suggested uses. There was a photo of the toolbox filled with a hair dresser’s brushes and combs, and another in which it held jewelry making items.

If it was misguided to think female carpenters would jump at the chance to buy a toolbox just because it was pink, it seems even more absurd to suppose someone would want an expensive, heavy piece of metal furniture, designed to hold power tools weighing 50 pounds or more, to hold combs and hair ties, or beads and wires.

“I thought it was kind of insulting,” the store employee said as he tucked the card back where he’d concealed it behind the price tag. When your promotions are so cringe-worthy that salespeople actually hide them, chances are you’re doing something wrong.

4. Let stereotypes be your guide.

If you’re a girl, you must love pink. I wonder if anyone at Sears even paused to consider this assumption. Women like pink… really? So much that we want it not only for our clothes and lipsticks, but the things we work with every day? Consider this: Women make most decisions about which kitchen appliances to buy, and most of them aren’t pink. When it comes to furniture, if anything, most women prefer neutral colors that fit with a tasteful decor.

A couple of weeks later I was Christmas shopping for Steve’s girlfriend, who manages a stable. She needs warm clothing to do this work in winter, so I decided to read the reviews of a base layer thermal top. One female shopper praised the fabric, thumb holes, and color choices adding, “Thank you for no lavender or pink!”

Sears, are you taking notes?

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