It looks as though the OP industry has finally cottoned on to the fact that it is women, not men, that order in the stationery.
There may be men making the final buying decisions but like a strutting peacock, it’s the eye of the females that resellers and manufacturers need to attract.
Many of the companies OPI spoke to came back with a similar response. Some said 70 percent, some said as much as 85 percent, but all agreed it is mostly women who are placing the final order.
Smead, which last year celebrated its 50th year as a woman-owned business, is headed-up by the industry’s longest-serving female CEO in Sharon Avent.
The firm, famed for its colourful and innovative stationery, was well-placed to embark on a recent ground-breaking tie-in with international Scandinavian fashion company, Marrimekko.
The women’s clothing label was made world famous by Jackie Kennedy during the Kennedy versus Nixon presidential battle in the 1960s (the fashion icon wore designs by the Finnish fashion house after being criticised by the American press for wearing expensive French garments).
Now the two companies have combined to create a range of filing products sporting Marrimekko’s signature floral design. The striking files and folders have found themselves onto the pages of home decoration magazines and in the ‘must-have’ sections of Europe’s glossies.
"We found that end-users are willing to bring some fresh colours and designs to their offices," says Edouard André, Smead’s marketing director for its Europe division.
"There are a lot of boring private label products out there. We’ve seen a growth in SOHO, so now an office can be a living room people don’t want ugly, dark lever arch files – they want something which won’t clash with their home setting."
Marrimekko by Smead is specifically designed for the SOHO or SME markets and won’t impress the cost-conscious larger companies. But the range has highlighted the potential of targeting female buyers with feminine products.
Says André: "I believe the industry will get to the point where large contract stationers can carry this type of product. I think the greatest opportunity for feminine products, or male products, or kids products, even elderly products, is in the SOHO or retail sector, where people are given the opportunity to choose."
Smead also had an internal challenge with the fashion-conscious range. Around two-thirds of its salesforce is male, as is a high majority of the buyers. In an award-winning marketing campaign, Smead undertook some research and armed its salespeople with bunches of flowers to win over customers.
"One of the challenges was to provide enough marketing, arguments, facts, figures and PR leverage that could convince our salespeople and our buyers to list the products for the female end-users. It’s a male chain that reaches the female end-user, but I think we’ve succeeded because we’ve achieved great sales results and very good profit margins.
André adds: "Women have more and more of an important place in the office. Having worked in the US I believe Europe is still a little behind, still a little bit misogynistic, varying from country to country. True equality is coming into the whole office environment – and it’s about time."
Smead found strength from the experience of Safco Products and its high-flying director of marketing and global sourcing, Pam LaFontaine.
LaFontaine has with been the manufacturer of office solutions for ten years and has a background in purchasing. When she moved from the DIY market to the OP industry she was shocked by the "sterile and industrial" way products were presented.
"It seemed to make sense that the decision-maker when buying these products was more often than not a female."
In response, the company began the process of redesigning its logo and changing its tag line to "creating your comfort zone" in an attempt to speak to the more "emotional part" in the buyer who makes the purchase.
It makes sense that Safco’s products, which include chairs, desks and other items which have an affect on office dŽcor, are better chosen by someone who cares about design.
The firm undertook some research into its own clients which revealed that a staggering 80 percent of buying decisions were made by women. Not only that, but women also spent over 50 percent more than men.
LaFontaine says that if a male executive wants a new leather chair, he is more likely to ask his assistant or the company’s procurement department to source and purchase it.
A female executive, she believes, is more inclined to have an emotional attachment to a product and will want to be involved in the purchase and customisation of it.
There is certainly a large proportion of females that is responsible for the technical element of purchasing as part of their job, but there is also a proportion of female executives that wants to be more involved in the process.
"I think women approach products as an accessory to their wardrobe," LaFontaine says. "When it comes to a briefcase for their laptop, men would be happy to put up with what they are given. Women want to get something more fashionable – and they’re willing to pay for it."
LaFontaine adds that this philosophy can be carried through to a whole range of products. Her company also noticed women everywhere taking part in the annual New Year’s resolution to become more organised.
Every January, stressed mothers and busy executives buy a shopping cart load of desk tidies and organisational products to sort out their lives. Then, 12 months later, shoppers make the same determined resolution, but this time they buy something new in the hope that it will spur them on (hopefully with better results than last year).
LaFontaine says: "That works wonderfully, because the customer sees that sort of product as almost disposable."
Safco took its female-friendly attitude to this year’s ever expanding NeoCon trade fair where the firm’s unusual female USP set tongues wagging.
With the knowledge that it is more often a ‘she’ than a ‘he’ who pushes the purchase button, resellers have recently been changing their approach to the way they sell.
United Stationers has adapted its Biggestbook.com catalogue into a so-called ‘magalog’ with editorial features and office tips, while Spicers developed a successful Pink Fever brochure featuring entirely pink products – 80 per cent of which raised money for breast cancer charities.
For George Karibian, managing director of online contract stationer Euroffice, the question of who is logging onto the site has warranted many hours of careful discussion. The dislocated nature of online ordering means trying to gather data about who is on the other end of the keyboard can be a difficult task to accomplish.
Like most website businesses, the firm has performed extensive research into profiling its customers. This research looks at targeting a number of ‘personas’ and making the website accessible for everyone who logs on – no matter whether they are male or female.
Says Karibian: "It is something we’ve had a lot of debate on internally. In our case there are two main personas, the secretary and the small business owner. We break that down into SOHO and SMEs and then further still, but the secretaries tend to be women and the owners tend to be men. As a company gets smaller and smaller we see more conversion between the two – the secretary of a small firm will act as a jack-of-all-trades and take on the personality of the owner."
Karibian says appreciating the gender of the customer is a complicated issue. How can the website appeal initially to a secretary, then at the same time remain meaningful to the personality of an owner?
"Maybe it’s a mistake on our part but we’ve felt it’s na¥ve to sell or package goods in a way that’s more meaningful for women. Instead we’ve limited our site to neutral colours and curved the edges on the boxes. A lot of debate went into that and a lot of debate is still going on."
If 3M are anything to go by, then the answer may lie in clever marketing. You wouldn’t normally associate Post-it notes with movies, but the manufacturer has been busy turning the two unlikely bedfellows into a successful marketing campaign.
The latest promotion features Hollywood blockbuster The Devil Wears Prada. Customers who buy Post-it products receive a money voucher redeemable in High Street clothes stores.
"We know that at least 70 percent of our purchases are made by females, so we know that it’s very important for us to appeal to women because they are the ones who make the purchase decision," says Suzie Cox, consumer marketing for Post-it in the UK.
"Using these promotions, we’re adding the emotional link and developing more and more products for the female market. We are supplying that added reason to buy Post-it products over private label brands by adding a timely and relevant incentive."
Previous campaigns have included cinema vouchers and a tie-in with the launch of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason on DVD. 3M says the promotion has dramatically boosted sales. It is planning more of the same next year, but it is also devising different campaigns targeting other buying groups.
It’s extremely hard for the company to gather data on who exactly is having the final say on purchasing its products. Like Euroffice, 3M recognises that there can be a dislocation between the final buyer and the decision-maker.
In addition, the demographics of the buyer change with the size of the company in question.
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply educates and supports people who work in purchasing, from junior roles up to procurement directors. The institute’s membership is split roughly 60:40 in favour of men and reveals a difference between small and large organisations when trying to understand the gender issue.
Firms which are large enough to have a procurement role tend to be indiscriminate in terms of gender choice. On the other hand, however, they sometimes have more resctricted buying habits compared to smaller, more flexible companies.
From designer stationery to magalogs, the attempts made by different sectors of industry to attract female buyers is part of a larger movement recognising the importance of taking gender into account.
There is clear margin to be made by attracting women, not only as a customer but also as employees. And judging by the clamour to attract the ladies, female intuition could prove a valuable skill.