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Ideas for Leaders #746

Why Gender Differences in Shopping Styles Are Stronger than National Differences

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Key Concept

A study of consumers in 10 countries supports the view that gender differences in shopping styles have evolutionary, not socio–cultural, roots. At the same time, the study’s authors argue that national culture characteristics can increase the effect of evolution–driven consumer behaviours. The implication for international marketers is to segment customers based on hard–wired evolutionary traits and national cultural influences. 

Idea Summary

Most people will agree – and academic research supports them – that men and women have different shopping styles. Women are more likely than men to see shopping as a leisure activity and an opportunity to socialize. They also take more pleasure in time–consuming comparison shopping. Men are more in a hurry, using brands and price to help them make quick decisions, and refusing to dally in a store any more than they have to. (For technical products, the stereotypes are reversed.)

Why are men and women shopping styles so different? One theory is cultural: the traditional gender roles engrained in society have conditioned women to act differently than men when shopping. Another theory, which is the theory at the heart of this research, is that the origins of gender differences are evolutionary. In the beginning, women gathered food, which is a social and leisurely activity, while men were hunters – an activity for loners looking to get the job done.

To test which of these theories could best explain gender differences in shopping styles, the researchers conducted an in–depth survey of a total of 1,000 consumers in 10 countries. If culture explained gender differences, the researchers reasoned, then the shopping styles of men and women living in higher–gender–equality countries would be less different – a convergence of shopping styles made possible since in such countries traditional gender roles have less influence.

If evolution explained gender differences, however, higher gender equality, more common in economically developed countries, would only magnify the differences between men and women, because women–gatherers would have even greater opportunities to enjoy and appreciate shopping.

The results of the study on this question were unequivocal: in higher–gender–equality countries, men and women shopping styles were even more different than in lower–gender–equality countries, supporting the evolutionary origins of different shopping styles.

The study also showed that in higher–gender–equality countries, the gender–related psychological traits hardwired into us by evolution – that women are empathizing (able to understand and share the feelings of others) while men are systemizing (related to spatial and mechanical skills and getting the job done efficiently) – are more evident than in lower–gender–equality countries. One reason: Women in more affluent societies can express their evolutionarily determined empathizing trait, which translates into leisurely, social shopping. Women in less economically favourable, lower–gender–equality countries, on the other hand, have less leisure time and are therefore more likely to exhibit systemizing traits, similar to the traits of men.

The 10 countries represented in the study were the UK, Spain, China, Greece, USA, France, Thailand, Germany, Japan and Italy.

Business Application

Globalization is sometimes interpreted as global standardization – that is, that national differences are becoming less relevant. This perspective has important implications for global marketers, who must decide whether or not international marketing campaigns need to be country–specific. This research provides some guidance: since evolutionary traits in consumers are more powerful than cultural influences, marketers must look to segment consumers based on these traits rather than on national origin. 

However, this research also shows that national culture can influence consumer behaviour. Specifically, in this case, high–gender–equality increased the evolutionary trait: in high–gender–equality countries, woman shopping styles were more empathizing than in low–gender–equality countries.

In sum, the researchers argue that international marketers should incorporate both the evolutionary and socio–cultural influences in determining how to segment their markets – beginning with the evolutionary influence. As they summarize the issue in their Journal of International Marketing article, gender–shopping styles “is not one of nature versus nurture, but rather one of nature and nurture.”

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Idea conceived

  • October 2018

Idea posted

  • July 2019

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