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Department stores like WalMart, Target, Kmart, et al. are laid out in a fashion that seems to vaguely discriminate against male shoppers by putting the "guy stuff" (automotive, hardware, sporting goods) at the rear of the store, or as far from the doors as possible, while the "chick stuff" is always at the front. Is it just me, or is this some bit of store-design psychology?

-- M.E., North County

Assuming this is a "guy letter," M.E., here's a little quiz. Which would you rather do next Saturday, shop for a suit or have hernia surgery? Buy a washing machine or sit through a tax audit? Buy new underwear or rupture a tendon? Tough choices, yeah? Man was not born to shop. Woman was. Eighty percent of men's clothing sold in Target stores is bought by women. On average, 65% of mall traffic is women. If there is a man around, he's dawdling along behind some hard-charging female, looking either bored or panicked, since he's way out of his element. They've actually studied men's walking rates, and the only place men habitually walk more slowly than women is in a shopping mall.

It's not only that women control most of a family's purchases (except for certain big-ticket items like cars), housewives in particular see being a smart shopper as an important personal quality. Men rank "smart shopper" dead last on the list of superior guy qualities. The American consumer is one of the most scrutinized creatures on the planet, and virtually every study shows that in the retail domain, women rule and men are just as happy to leave it that way. Men are hunters-- goal-oriented shoppers: go in, find what you want, get out. Women are gatherers-- fabric-feelers, label-readers, comparers. (That's why men's shirts in general-merchandise stores are displayed on hangers. In a men's specialty shop, they're folded around a piece of cardboard and wrapped in plastic.)

Given those universal truths, no wonder a store like Target or Wal-Mart looks like a lingerie wonderland and the tractors are back in the corner. And if 80% of all the shoppers looking for men's shirts are women, if they have to walk through the women's clothes section to get there, maybe they'll see a cute skirt or a purse and pick that up too.

In the layout of most large stores, there's a main path known in the biz as the racetrack that runs from the front doors down one side of the store, across the back, and down the other side, with the checkout along the front. All major product categories (including the guy stuff) and all high-visibility, end-aisle displays are connected to this corridor. When you get off this main drag onto the side streets, often you'll end up in a maze-like area that forces you to walk past lots of displays in order to get back out onto Main Street. There are lots of product-location tricks that retailers use, but hiding the Penzoil behind the Pampers isn't one of them. Most stores are set up for consumer convenience. Too bad for you that most of those consumers happen to be women.

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