November 15, 2003

Sex Slave to the Dataset

Reading Paco Underhill's renowned marketing text Why We Buy: the Science of Shopping, I can't help but think Mr. Underhill is one sexist mofo. Now there are plenty of good and/or interesting things inside the book, and I hope to hit them up at a later date. But for now, lets talk about this sex problem.

The core of it sits inside a pair of chapters "Shop Like a Man" and "What Women Want", and the rest leaks out all across the book. Its almost as if the author is on a mission to reinforce the hard social divides between man and women that constantly fall apart when looked at in the real world. Of course there is no denying the physiological difference between the sexs, nor the cultural forces that shape and reinforce some of those differences. But the fact is these differences are far more graded and interwoven then can generally be represented by ideas "male behavior" and "female behavior".

Now the complexity of this situation is actually illustrated well inside of Why We Buy, when Underhill looks at how certain stores actually reverse his proscribed male and female shopping behaviors. Enter a computer store and suddenly the men shop like women and the women shop like men. One might think this would be a warning sign, a big flashing light in the data saying that perhaps sex is not the appropriate determinant here. Perhaps people shop differently not because of their sex but because of their interest in a particular subject?

People shop for things then need and for things they desire. Wouldn't it make sense that people would shop differently for each item. Sometime you think "fuck I need to get that damn item, lets do this quickly" and sometimes you walk into a store loaded with your dream goods. Perhaps those goods are photo equipment, perhaps antique furniture, perhaps rarefied cheese.

Underhill's male and female shopping behaviors seem to me to have a lot more to do with how excited a person is about the objects and tasks contained in the store then about actual sex. Now there are plenty of cultural (and perhaps biological) factors that push women towards different interests. But there also a massive amount overlap. Men who spend half their day dreaming of clothes, women who flaunt their Gigabytes of RAM and all kinds of spaces in between.

Now what's really interesting here is not that Underhill is intent of reinforcing male/female distinctions that show up only in broad averages, but how it must have come to be that way. There are strong clues in the very first page of the book, where Underhill describes the methodology of his company. He employees crew of stalkers (er sorry "trackers") that follow people through stores recording all their behavior. And he video tapes store after store from angle after angle observing. Observing from afar.

Now try and ignore Orwellian side of it all for a bit and step back. What's happening here is that Underhill is collecting massive amounts of data about shoppers actions and almost no data at all about who they are or how they think. In fact just about the only meaningful data he has on these shoppers is their sex. And of course even then he's just guessing.

So what we have is a massive dataset where the only meaningful difference contained inside is the shoppers gender. No wonder Underhill harps on endlessly about the difference between male and female shoppers, its the only information he has at all. He becomes a slave to his dataset, taking what little he has and stretching it out throughout his whole book. Which is a shame since his information on actions is quite excellent, and indeed the book is quite good (although sometimes frightening) once you ignore the underlying sexism to it all.

Posted by Abe at November 15, 2003 11:43 AM


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ok I didnt even know you could show the difference between sexs in shopping, i mean never mind but that a knew way I did not know I ussually think the difference between sexs come from social intrest, genaral attraction, life styles and society.Thouths life, love, occupation, and placement with in society always activates social intrest his or her striving for significance, power, and superioriy, any psycological phenomenommust must be evalueted by the quantitative and qualitaviver singnificance to approximate the under standing between this two factors I men man and woman.
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I agree with you the way you view the issue. I remember Jack London once said everything positive has a negative side; everything negative has positive side. It is also interesting to see different viewpoints & learn useful things in the discussion.