As women demonstrate a growing appetite for consumer tech products, retailers and manufacturers are still only beginning to cater to this potentially huge reservoir of customers.
High-tech businesses and electronics retailers are changing store designs, increasing their marketing toward women, focusing on gadget accessories and boosting advertising in women's magazines -- all in a pitch to get women to walk the aisles and walk out with cell phones, MP3 players and plasma televisions.
But women remain wary of the splashiness and high-octane music of male-dominated retail outlets, said Mary Lou Quinlan, author of "Just Ask A Woman -- Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy."
"Guys walk around tech stores like they're in a porno shop looking for the fastest, newest, coolest, first-on-the-block thing, while women would rather shop in a calmer, information-based environment for products that will simplify their lives," Quinlan said.
To draw women in, stores have been turning down the music, changing the color schemes and adding staff trained to meet women's needs. Radio Shack has gussied up its gray and black decor with bright purple, orange and green at its newer stores. Aisles have been widened and the product arrangements redone to make the place look less like a cluttered electronics hardware store. The company also has put more women on the sales floor.
"The store doesn't feel like a men's club anymore," said Charles Hodges, a spokesman for Radio Shack. "Now women can walk in and be helped by women just as knowledgeable as guys."
Most technology manufacturers have few women among their top executives, and that translates into the kinds of products on the shelves and the way they are marketed, according to Quinlan. Few devices -- iPods and Palm handheld computers are among the exceptions -- tap into a woman's sense of style, she said.
"Design is key -- attractive, holdable, showable design," she said.
Women often are swayed to buy a product for reasons far different than those that drive men. They will choose a gadget not because they want to be a pioneer but because they and their friends have discovered the usefulness of the thing.
"Where men like to be the only one with a product, women like to bring more of her friends into their find -- they want to share the good news of what's working for them," Quinlan said. But friends are only one of the ways that women are discovering what's important to them when it comes to tech.
There's also a growing number of outside influences -- product-specific or trend articles in magazines that target women of all ages, for example. Recently, Radio Shack worked with Seventeen magazine -- known for its fashion, beauty and relationship features for young women -- on a story about MP3 players. And just last week, Oprah Winfrey gave away iPods, Blackberrys and Sony notebook computers alongside Burberry bags and Ugg boots on her annual "Oprah's Favorite Things" episode.
Yesterday, at Tysons Corner Center, Michele Woodward, 45, of Arlington stood inside the Sony store, transfixed before a wall of plasma screen televisions.
"I want a plasma TV so bad," she said.
To be exact, she wants a 42-inch plasma TV. And she won't settle for an LCD, or liquid crystal display set. It's not cutting-edge enough -- and women and plasma TVs just go together, she said: "This is home decorating. It's not just a TV; it's a statement."
Woodward, a self-described "gadget girl," was an early buyer of the iPod music player. She owns a cell phone, a laptop computer and a DVD player and subscribes to a satellite radio service.
The shopping experience for a woman is more social than it is for a man, Quinlan said, making Best Buy's introduction of personal shopping assistants particularly attractive to female consumers. The assistants show customers through the store and even take pre-trip phone calls to have merchandise waiting when a shopper arrives.
"One segment we weren't catering to as much as we should have was the audience of women," said Natalie Bushaw, spokeswoman for Best Buy. "We realized we weren't tapping into them in the right way."
At Best Buy in Tysons Corner Center on Friday morning, a McLean woman named Julie -- who would not give her last name for fear of ruining the surprise Christmas gift for her husband -- snatched up an XM Satellite radio unit for him. She did not stay to browse but said she is not gadget-shy.
"My husband thinks [satellite radio] is a waste of money," she said. " I intend to prove him wrong."