Lost in the Supermarket: Men Without Lists

Men are shopping more, but women still make the grocery decisions

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

What's the worst thing a woman can tell a man?

If it's a healthy, economical meal she wants, "Get something for dinner on the way home" can be a recipe for disaster.

Why? In most families -- even those in which men buy the groceries -- women still make the shopping decisions. Without a list, men get lost in today's fast-paced supermarkets, says David W. Stewart, the Robert E. Brooker Professor of Marketing the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

"More and more men are picking up items at the grocery store," Stewart tells WebMD. "But they are frequently following the instructions of the female in the household. Traditionally, the woman was the decision maker and shopper. Now the female is still the primary decision maker, but the shopping is more often shared by two individuals."

Men and Women in the Grocery Aisles

More and more men have been doing more and more grocery shopping. It's not a new trend, says David Mick, PhD, professor of marketing at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce and president-elect of the Association for Consumer Research.

"There is no doubt that men's and women's shopping roles have changed," Mick tells WebMD. "Men are more often going into grocery stores and buying categories of things they would not have bought a generation ago. It has been going on for the last 20 years, and has been steadily rising."

More than half of men say they do 60% or more of their family's grocery shopping. The numbers don't exactly add up: More than 85% of women say they do most of their family's shopping. Still, a lot of men are pushing fleets of shopping carts through many miles of grocery aisles.

And yes, Stewart admits, more men than ever before are making the decisions on which groceries to buy.

"But that is a much more modest phenomenon than the rising trend of the female giving the male a list -- complete with brand names to buy," he says.

What about the "Mars/Venus" stereotypes? Aren't men the brave hunters who plunge into the wild aisles to emerge triumphant with exactly what they came for? Aren't women the nurturing gatherers who patiently browse for nourishment?

"Yes, it's true that men tend to go after specific grocery items while women are more likely to browse," Stewart notes. "But it is not that males are more decisive. They are basically following orders."

"Men and women probably do shop a bit differently in grocery stores on average," Mick agrees. "Women probably are less dominated by a top-down, purposive approach to shopping. They probably would be a little more exploratory. ... Women in many families are probably still expected to be the primary procurer of goods for the household. You might say it serves them in that role to have a wider radar of what is in the store and what is good for the household."

Super Marketing

Marketers -- the people who study and implement retail selling -- know a lot about how men and women shop. They know who's making the shopping lists. So they mostly market to women.

"Manufacturers and distributors and grocery stores do a lot of things to maximize their profit per square inch of shelf and, hopefully, to increase customer satisfaction," Mick says. "They are not idiots. They do a lot of research. They track a lot of data. They know who their loyal customers are. They use this information to set up the store to be competitive."

But even the best marketers and consumer psychologists that money can buy don't ensure that you'll buy everything a supermarket has to sell.

"Do they have this down to a science so that they push everybody's button all the time? No," Mick says. "It is easy to go to an extreme thinking that marketers and grocers know things the psychologists don't even know about getting us to buy things. I don't think they have figured out things quite that much."

It's a highly competitive marketplace with razor-thin profit margins. Supermarkets focus on the bottom line, says Wesley Hutchinson, PhD, the Stephen J. Heyman Professor and professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the Association for Consumer Research.

"The grocery is trying to do a lot of things, and a lot of it is based on efficiency," Hutchinson tells WebMD. "They want to keep their loyal customers and they want to get people in and out as fast as possible. In the meantime, they try to sell you some things. They're trying to move a lot of volume through the store as fast as they can."

About 80% of grocery store purchases are straight rebuys, says Herbert Jack Rotfeld, PhD, professor of marketing at Auburn University and editor of the Journal of Consumer Affairs. That means we have a good chance of emerging from the grocery store without too much overbuying.