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Women driving auto industry, from design to dealerships

Casey Williams Chicago Tribune

Women are fueling the red-hot auto industry, long dominated by men. They influence over 80 percent of automotive purchases and drive more than 50 percent of autos sold annually in the U.S. Since 2012, women held more drivers licenses than men.

Now more than ever, women hold great sway over the auto industry, from the features in how cars are designed to the other end of the car buying spectrum at the dealer relationship.

The recognition of woman as driver of the auto industry instead of mere accessory is a long way from the ’50s when Dodge patronized women with a pink car called “La Femme.” Promotional materials called it “the first and only car designed for Your Majesty, the modern American woman.”

“It would not fly today,” said Brandy Schaffels, editor of, which provides automotive advice to women. “It worked then, but the mindset was different. Women were expected to be domestic goddesses. For a man to give his wife a car that was uniquely hers was appropriate at the time.”

Recent research highlights how much female drivers have changed since then.

Women are prudent shoppers, according to a recent study by Jumpstart Automotive, a division of Hearst Magazines focused on shopping trends. The study included one-on-one interviews plus 1,014 respondents online.

“Women want more practical features,” said Libby Murad-Patel, Jumpstart analyst. “Few (women car buyers) just want a change in style or performance. They trade because of vehicle age, mileage, having children or are growing out of children. They’re looking to get through a life stage with the current vehicle.”

Jumpstart’s study also found women are more willing to switch from new to less expensive pre-owned vehicles and they place value on comfort, seating and safety.

“Women focused on a specific budget; men were more interested in style and performance,” Patel said. “Women place greater emphasis on purchase price and monthly payment, whereas men look at cost of ownership as a bigger factor.”

And while men like to show off their engines, women have different priorities.

“We want safety, we want performance, we want confident power,” Schaffels said. “It’s not the size of the engine, but how you use it. We’re not likely to sacrifice fuel economy to boast about horsepower. We want comfort. Women also love technology like lane keep assist and accident mitigation; they get distracted by what’s happening in the back seat. Anything that makes us better drivers is a plus.”

Patel points out that while women are practical shoppers, they reward themselves later in life with luxury cars. It seems women and men aren’t really that different after all.

Women place emphasis on sales approaches that are ethical, low pressure and respect her time.

Women are more likely to value unbiased opinions, relying more on independent research and reviews. They do their homework online and are more likely than men to consult Consumer Reports. They also look to their social network for advice and scrutinize the credibility of journalists.

How women negotiate also differs.

“Women are very loyal relationship buyers,” Schaffels continued. “Men like the conquest, to know they got a great deal. If a female feels safe, she’s not necessarily digging for the best deal. Women look for a more consultative selling experience and reach to social media to tell peers about her experience.”

Auto dealerships are taking notice.

“To think women aren’t involved, salespeople are fooling themselves,” said Gabe Greene, general manager of Ed Martin Acura in Indianapolis. “We try not to focus on gender, but rather saving the customer time and providing value. We have a play area for kids and a business center shut off from noise. Recognizing mothers are busy, we have free service loaner cars and extended hours for sales and service.”

Greene is right to focus on what female buyers need and to respect them. During the New York Auto Show last March, Lexus and Be Car Chic hosted a panel discussion among female auto journalists to discuss how dealerships can be more female-friendly. Want to know what really peeves a female buyer?

“Salespeople who won’t speak to her or speaks only to the man,” Schaffels said. “Don’t talk down to her; don’t assume she doesn’t know. Women are naturally more inquisitive. Dealerships must be ready to answer questions, willing to listen, or she will shut down communication. Don’t give us a know-it-all attitude.”