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Published Jun. 29, 2010

John Wilkins scanned the women's magazines, candy bars and gift cards crowded around the supermarket checkout.

"We need to man this up," said the store design strategist with Miller Zell in Atlanta. "After all, guys are impulse shoppers, too."

It could be a cooler full of Red Bull and cola. Or some men's magazines or razor blades. But the experience inspired Wilkins to author one of many studies under way on the latest emerging topic: male shopping behavior.

Since time immemorial, retailers catered to women in ads, store design and organization because they make three-quarters of all purchases. But the primary shopper in 32 percent of all households today is a man, more than double the 14 percent of two decades ago, according to Nielsen and NPD Group. Credit divorce, rising numbers of both singles and single male parents, and changing gender roles linked to more women working.

Detailed in an Atlantic July cover story The End of Men: How Women are Taking Control of Everything, the changing role of males is fallout from societal forces expected to make female earners the anchor of the middle class as men slip into more of a shared support role that includes family shopping.

Consider: Women today land three of every five college degrees, preparing themselves for the best-paying careers.

For the first time women this year hold 51 percent of all management and professional jobs after three-quarters of the jobs lost in the recession were held by men. Going forward, of 15 career categories forecast to create the most jobs, only two have been male-dominated: computer engineers and janitors.

The subject is appearing on more retail radar screens now because some big chains noticed underspending in promotional incentives that stores can get from male consumer products makers like Unilever and Procter & Gamble's Gillette.

That's why the Texas grocery chain H-E-B a few months ago converted one aisle in a supermarket into a man cave for male shoppers. This is not to be confused with metrosexuals, a bogus trend dreamed up by high-end cosmetics industry publicists a few years ago. This aisle showcases mass-market products men already use. In addition to 534 men's products - toiletries, personal care and grooming - there are touch-screens with how-to guides and TV screens airing sports. Sales jumped 11 percent for products that previously were scattered all over the store.

Wilkins last week led a discussion among two dozen retail merchandising and marketing executives at an annual conference staged by the retailing program at the University of Florida.

A consensus of insights:

- Men are driven to find bargains. But they are not coupon clippers - the principal currency of retail promotions. In fact, Wilkins notes, virtually all the tools for coupon clippers are designed to fit in a purse, not a wallet.

- Store real estate is divvied up with more room for women's stuff. A department store executive questioned how her company expects the men's department to do 37 percent of sales in 25 percent of the space.

- Men have a reputation for shopping with a single-minded intensity - get in quickly and get out just as quickly. But many men regard shopping as entertainment - just watch their eyes light up at outdoor meccas like Bass Pro Shops, REI or Cabela's. Many kill time in the aisles at Best Buy just to get current on electronics.

- Many men like to bone up about future purchases. But some are shy about being seen doing it, especially if it's home improvement or auto repair others expect them to know.

- Men and women need help navigating their shopping trips.

"This is less about putting testosterone in stores as much as neutralizing the female environment," Wilkins said. "We're just starting to learn how men shop."

Otherwise, marketing to males will remain stuck in 20th century tactics, leading to even more sophomoric Bud Lite spots, macho Marlboro Men and unsettling Viagra ads.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.