At Detroit's auto show, industry offers more of what women want
Car designers shift focus as the number of women drivers in the U.S. has surpassed that of men
Two moms shared a laugh recently at the Detroit auto show's GMC exhibit, a space that often brings to mind macho trucks and SUVs.
"I love this charger," Scotty Reiss told GMC's head of design, Helen Emsley, lifting a cap from a power outlet in the backseat of a 2017 Acadia Denali. "When I go somewhere, I can plug in a flat iron and do my hair!"
- Driverless cars may save lives but will they kill driving?
- 7 buzz-worthy cars and trucks at the Detroit auto show
- Chrysler unveils new Pacfica minivan
Later, Reiss remarked to Emsley that the high-gloss finish on the mid-size SUV's grill gave off a "David Yurman feel," invoking the name of a jewelry designer known for his signature bracelets.
Quips about haircare and jewelry may not seem like the kind of auto-industry chatter one might expect at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit.
But Reiss, editor of SheBuysCars.com, knows her motor vehicles. Another thing she knows is this: her opinion matters, particularly as a vast majority of car-buying decisions are now being led by women.
The pattern is only trending upward, as a June 2014 Frost & Sullivan survey found female drivers in the U.S. had, for the first time, surpassed male licence holders.
"Women are buying cars or making the major purchasing decisions in 85 per cent of car sales," Reiss said afterward, citing figures from General Motors consumer research.
The female frontier
Only about four years ago, Reiss said, she might expect to be part of the 30 to 40 per cent of women attending the Detroit auto show.
"Now it's about 50-50," she estimated. "And many of the women attending are actively engaged."
NAIAS spokesperson Max Muncey said the Detroit show does not conduct any gender-targeted advertising, nor does it track attendees by gender.
But in 2014, Ford identified "The Female Frontier" as a Top 10 micro-trend, recognizing the growing purchasing power of women. Among millennials, Ford found that females were actually overtaking male buyers, making up 53 per cent of the market for that demographic.
Even dealerships are changing up their game. Lexus has begun serving up healthier snacks to target female customers, and one Miami Lexus dealership offers spa treatments, manicures and yoga.
NAIAS may still seem like a male-dominated industry showcase, but automakers are paying attention to changing gender dynamics, with analysts seeing clues on the showroom floor.
"You're seeing a lot of crossover SUVs here," said Edmunds auto industry analyst Jessica Caldwell while attending the auto show.
"The Chevy Bolt is a small car, but it sits up a little bit higher and that's to target the buyer who wants that little bit more of a command view of the road."
The Chrysler Pacifica could also draw more female ticket-holders, too, especially those who might be attending the auto show as an educational or shopping opportunity.
"That's a minivan hybrid, so again, more of a family vehicle that perhaps women with families would be looking at," Caldwell said.
Caldwell said she thinks it makes sense to go after household decision-makers.
"Women are a little more pragmatic. So they're looking at things like safety, price, fuel economy — things that make a good purchasing decision," she said.
That often means interest in hybrids and green cars.
A common feature Caldwell comes across in her research about female drivers is "ride height," which lends the feeling of being in more control for those sitting a little bit more elevated.
Safety, or at least the perception of safety, is also a key selling point as women who wield more influence over household car-buying decisions.
While market research shows men continue to be interested in technology, performance and luxury, women are more likely to prioritize value, practicality and security, according to the automotive research company Kelley Blue Book.
Jennifer Geiger, assistant managing editor with Cars.com, noticed more family-oriented design in Detroit as well. In her mind, two highlights at the NAIAS were the GMC Acadia and the Chrysler Pacifica, both of which have been dubbed by reviewers as "mom-friendly."
The Chrysler Pacifica minivan includes an optional vacuum cleaner, for example, and is easier for children to step into.
"Parents will also appreciate you can have a forward-facing [baby] car seat installed and still move the seat forward and get back to the third row," Geiger said.
Though Geiger noted the GMC Acadia still brings a "masculine" feel, a few other design considerations are winning over women, particularly moms.
While sitting in the back of an Acadia Denali SUV with GMC's Emsley, Reiss commented on the flat flooring — well-suited for placing a purse in the backseat. Good storage for handbags is an oft-overlooked need in cars, she said.
"A handbag in a car can be a really dangerous thing when it sits in the passenger's seat," she said, noting that they can become projectiles in the event of a high-speed crash.
"Where you stick your handbag in your car is an important decision and it's a conversation women continually have that men never really think about."
Reiss has actively followed the careers of prominent female industry leaders like GMC's Emsley. Another is General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who was chairman of the GMC board earlier this month.
Still, she notes that the percentage of female employees in the auto sector fails to reflect consumer trends. Only 17 per cent of auto-industry employees are female, according to the North American Dealers Association.