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The Retail Gender Divide Begins With Kids Wear

It isn’t the extra X chromosome that predisposes women to love shopping. Rather, it is a kids wear conditioning that begins early in infancy.

If you’ve ever been inside a children’s clothing store, you know exactly what I am talking about. Approximately 95 percent of the store is filled with “new creations” and “latest designs” for girls. And on one rack relegated to the back corner of the store you can find some jeans and t-shirts for boys.

If you want additional variety for your son, you can get jeans in blue or black or shirts with or without collars. If you’re in a well-stocked and progressive kids wear store, you might even find button-down shirts in two different colors. But don’t expect anything more. Parents in this section can make a quick choice from the limited selection and head over to the cash register. They are done with their son’s shopping in less than five minutes.

In contrast, the girls’ section is filled with colorful outfits in myriad styles and patterns. A number of little girl mannequins will help guide (and sometimes confuse) choices. There is a huge selection of dresses in every cut, fabric and color, with leggings to match. And to complete the picture of a perfectly dressed little girl, there is a range of accessories such as bracelets, hair ties, and sandals. Incidentally, this section also has jeans and t-shirts. Only the jeans here will be cuter than the boys’, with cuffs and embroidery. Parents – mostly moms – will gush with delight over all the choices and spend an inordinate amount of time (and money) figuring out the perfect outfits and accessories for their little girls. Total time at the store can easily cross a few hours.

I was observing all of this in a kids wear store recently, when it dawned on me that we were conditioning the shopping behavior of boys and girls for life. What these little kids saw on shopping trips at age two was going to influence their adult behavior and even their relationships.

For instance, if you look at shoppers in a mall, it is easy to separate them into a few different groups. Group A consists of two or more women. They view shopping as a fun activity – something to look forward to – an adventure of sorts. They go into each store that catches their eye, try on something that they never expected to look for in the first place, and buy something that they never needed. The group will show full interest in each other’s selections and offer encouragement and advice.

Group B consists of two or more men. They have come here for an express purpose and the goal for them is to get out of the mall as soon as that purpose is accomplished. No distractions for them. They just need a pair of blue trousers. Perhaps socks if there is a special discount, but that’s it. Detractors in this group are sternly scolded and told to stay true to the goal at hand: getting out of the store in the shortest possible time.

Group C, which consists of a couple shopping together, is quite interesting. If you watch the man, he is constantly checking his watch and making exasperated expressions every time his female companion takes a detour into another store. It’s quite clear from his face that he would much rather be sitting on the couch in front of the television than be carrying bags around in this mall. He stares enviously at the group of men who come in to buy the necessary item and, without any further ado, head straight for the exit door. All the while, his companion is probably a little annoyed that he’s not more involved and engaged in picking candle stands for their living room.

It’s not genetics that causes this gender divide; it’s conditioning. After all, little boys who accompany their parents to the children’s store see them getting in and out in a matter of minutes. With young boys, even the mothers don’t spend any time dilly-dallying amongst the kids wear. They can’t! There’s not much for their sons to waffle between.

The girls, on the other hand, have memories of twirling around in changing rooms. They remember their mothers debating whether to get them the pink dress or the fuchsia one and then coordinating the hair accessories. They see shopping as something fun, rather than a chore to be completed in order not to go to school in too-small jeans.

Perhaps if kids wear retailers could expand the selection of boys’ apparel, future generations of men and women would be more aligned in their attitudes towards shopping. It would make couples much more likely to enjoy an afternoon together at a mall. It might lead to a few longer and happier marriages.

And it would make pretty good business sense for the retailers, too.

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