Entering neutral territory

John LewisBritish retailer John Lewis made headlines earlier this month over a decision it reached more than a year ago to make its own brand of children’s clothing more gender neutral.

In 2016, the company replaced gender-specific labels on its own brand of children’s clothing with tags that read ‘boys and girls’ or ‘girls and boys’ and later replaced ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signage in its department stores with photos of children modelling clothes. In January of this year, it launched a unisex babywear range.  

Consumers, however, seem to have noticed the changes just a few weeks ago and were quick to react with strong emotions. While some praised John Lewis for its progressive thinking, others blasted the retailer for “pandering to the PC brigade”, as one person wrote on Twitter. Some urged fellow shoppers to boycott the company.

In a statement, John Lewis said it was “surprised by the reaction these changes have received […] because they were introduced over a year ago.”

But in fact, the retailer didn’t have to look far to find other companies that faced the same situation after removing gender labels and signs from their stores, or challenging stereotypes in their product range and marketing activities.

Target in the US removed some gender-based signs in 2015, after a picture of its toy department signage, which distinguished between ‘building sets’ and ‘girls’ building sets’, went viral for all the wrong reasons. Still, some people reacted negatively to the change, saying it would make the stores harder to navigate.

Retailers are grappling with the issue of gender neutrality Down Under too. Target Australia, which is not affiliated with the US company, faced a backlash last year for stocking a children’s t-shirt which featured a ‘Batgirl to-do list’, including “dryclean cape, wash Batmobile, fight crime, save the world.”

Even as some consumers took the company to task for reinforcing gender stereotypes, others accused the critics of being overly sensitive.

It is undoubtedly a good thing that more retailers want to be inclusive of all customers, across gender, race, sexuality, ability and age, but they may not be acting on this due to fear of getting caught in the political crosshairs, or misspeaking on a sensitive subject.

There is a feeling of, ‘damned if you, damned if you don’t’. Is it worth the risk to be more gender neutral?

For PriceWaterhouseCoopers retail analyst, Paddy Carney, it is.

“As a parent, it’s something that I think about. My daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in a pink frilly number, but [retailers] just assume that’s what girls want. She ends up having to buy stuff from the boys’ section,” she tells IRW.

But Carney says it’s not just her own consumer experience that would improve if retailers embraced gender neutral products and marketing tactics; she believes their business performance would also benefit.

“For me, it’s a bigger question of how they market. Are they being customer-centric enough? Or are they just putting everyone in boxes?”

Putting parents in charge

Indeed, customer-centricity is how Toys ‘R’ Us Australia thinks of its efforts to become more gender neutral over the past three years.

The company was one of the first major toy retailers in Australia to do away with gender-specific signage in stores and online, following strong customer feedback.

“We try to avoid using gender-specific terms whenever possible. When you walk into our stores or go on our website, you’ll see we don’t use categories like ‘boys’ or ‘girls’. We

group things under categories like ‘dolls’ or ‘puzzles’,” Jess Donovan, head of marketing at Toys ‘R’ Us Australia, tells IRW.

According to Donovan, there was little resistance to the change internally, since many of the decisionmakers were parents themselves and had firsthand knowledge of the fact that boys often play with dolls and girls often shoot toy guns.

They implicitly understood the effect that labelling certain products as ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ could have on children’s choices.

Research suggests that gendered marketing makes boys and girls more likely to prefer their own groups than they would otherwise.

Cordelia Fine, a professor at the University of Melbourne, and the author of Testosterone Rex and Delusions of Gender, gives the example of a male child saying, “I don’t want that – that’s for girls.”

According to Fine, gendered products and marketing are even more problematic, since they tend to reinforce stereotypes of males as “bad but bold” and females as “wonderful but weak”.

“These stereotypes are the basis of both conscious and unconscious forms of sex discrimination in the workplace. There’s an irony in the fact that at the very time that organisations are putting time and resources into trying to reduce these forms of discrimination in the workplace, gendered marketing is sowing the seeds of those very stereotypes into the next generation,” Fine tells IRW.

Toys R Us, however, says research didn’t play a significant role in its decision to stop using gender-specific terms.

“Ultimately the way we view it is that toys are toys, kids will play with whichever items appeal to them specifically. We don’t presume to know what will appeal to each and every child. For us, this wasn’t a politically weighted decision. It was about trying to be really clear on our customer experience,” Donovan says.

This stance extends to the company’s catalogue, which is its main marketing activity.

“We’re always mindful of showing equal representation of boys and girls and a mix of races across categories, and not alienating any group of consumers. We try not to typecast in any of the imagery we use,” she says.

While Donovan says the company has primarily received praise from customers, she acknowledges that “you can’t make everyone happy”, citing John Lewis as an unfortunate example of that. She is also pragmatic about the fact that retailers must consider store navigability when making changes.

“We’re a big box retailer with lots of SKUs and we want to make sure customers coming in store can still navigate easily,” she says.

In some ways, this trade-off is easier online, since few people tend to search for toys by gender. Most people today are searching by category, like ‘action figures’, or brand, like ‘Star Wars’, Donovan says.

Not just toys

For Thea Hughes, co-founder of Play Unlimited, an Australian organisation committed to raising awareness of gendered marketing aimed at children, removing signs and labels is just the first step that retailers should be taking towards more gender neutral stores.

“Most have been fairly quick to remove signage because that’s so overt. I’m glad to see that change happening so quickly, but I think there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of the imagery we see and how things are marketed,” she tells IRW.

“It’s not just toys that are so gendered. Everything from toothpaste to shampoos is for boys or girls. Every time kids walk out the door, they’re being asked to affirm their gender and make choices they feel are socially acceptable to make,” she says.

According to Hughes, the biggest challenge is simply convincing retailers to do something different to what they’ve done it in the past. On this point, however, history is on her side.

As PwC’s Carney points out, “People think this is the way we’ve always done it, but we used to put little boys in pink and little girls in blue. That has changed over time. Things will change again. These things tend to be cyclical. Sometimes it takes different people coming in to challenge the norm of the way it’s always been done.”

She says there is another reason retailers should reconsider marketing products along gender lines.

“If you can design a range thats gender neutral, theres a fair amount of efficiency in it. Any retailer worth their salt would [do this] because you get economies of scale,” she says.

Perhaps it is a sign of things to come that Uniqlo, H&M and Asos have all introduced gender neutral collections in recent months.



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