Designing Retail for Women

When, as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once argued, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so are servicescapes. A servicescape denotes a physical setting in which a marketplace exchange is performed, delivered, and consumed within a service organization. Servicescapes are designed spaces that affect the perceptions and purchasing behavior of consumers by accessing their emotions through the use of environmental stimuli. They are like your proverbial space ship – extraordinary spaces for creativity, exploration, and imagination. And they constitute an experiential structure that guides consumers in particular ideological directions.

Consider Tesla. Tesla is not the first car manufacturer to combine the sexy sleek design of a sports car but with the emphasis on cutting-edge technology and environmental stewardship. But it is among the first to have created a retail environment for automobiles that is highly captivating not only for men but also for women.

Marketing experts have long argued that the key to creating a woman-friendly car retail environment is to make things more feminine for women, e.g., by locating the store closer to fashion and makeup stores, by using bigger fonts in catalogues, or by providing beauty treatments for women while they wait for their men. These pink washing attempts subscribe to the problematic idea that there is a natural woman and that this woman is helpless and in need of male assistance. To explore what really makes the Tesla store so captivating for women beyond perpetuating gender stereotypes, we sent a team of female Schulich ethnographers to one of Canada’s largest retail malls. Here is what they found:

Traditionally, the biggest servicescape element making car dealerships an unwelcome place to women is the aggressive and patronizing design. “When you go to a car dealership you have to wear every status marker you own and even wear a wedding ring so that people will take you seriously,” said one informant. That’s because car dealerships are thought of as transactional spaces – spaces where men can negotiate and make deals with other men. The Tesla store, however, is not at all about designed to convey this impression. It is not so much the fact that Tesla would also feature female sales people. Rather, the store is designed like a space for exploration, discovery, and fun that does not know sales assistants, only male and female experience guides.

Anthropologists have long pointed to the fact that objects can encode cultural meanings and, thus, reinforce, particular gender imbalances. The most important design element in traditional dealerships, for instance, is the displayed engine. It either comes under an opened hood or on a pedestal. At any rate, it not only represents a totem around which customers and service personal can forge mutually beneficial male bonds. It also serves as a symbolic reminder that cars are really “owned” by men, not by women. Not so at Tesla. The central element is about a form of transportation that is attractive for current generations as well as for the planet and future generations at large. Making the engine invisible is a way to downplay what our female informants refer to as “the intimidating aspects of technology” and to instead foreground the idea that men and women play an equal role in solving larger issues such as global warming. As such, the Tesla store does something more profound: by offering a de-totemized retail experience and actively taking the attention away from the engine, it reframes the Tesla vehicle from a male fetish object to an object over which both men and women can have equal authority.

Lastly, Tesla’s retail space embodies what sociologists have referred to as “neoliberal gender” – the idea that women’s empowerment is not a matter of collective organization and institution-level activism but rather one of team-oriented market choice. Along these lines, Tesla invests its male and female consumers in a kind of post-gender world in which the couple - understood here as a team of entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative consumers - solve all problems through the market, thereby undermining longstanding traditions that divide competences between work and home. Nowhere is this neoliberal orientation more beautifully illustrated than in Tesla’s design suite, an area in the back of the store that allows couples to co-create their own Tesla on a touch screen.

To summarize, making traditionally male servicescapes attractive to women is never just a matter of “helping women,” thereby reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes. Rather it is about redefining assemblages of meanings, objects, and people in ways that resolve longstanding power imbalances between men and women. As such, servicescape managers are also always political activists who contribute to how society negotiates gender.

David Thibault, Benedetta Verucchi, and Lavanya Yadlapalli are MBA Students in the new Customer Experience Design course at the Schulich School of Business at York University.