New Delhi: A few days after Rahul Verma purchased Ford Motor Co.’s Figo, a group of people dropped in unannounced at his Gurgaon home on a Saturday morning. The group, which included four Japanese employees of rival Nissan Motor Co. Ltd, wanted to meet his wife Ragini.
“Did you think about (buying) any other car before buying a Figo?” Rena Sofue, a Nissan employee with a rather long and unusual job title, asked Ragini.
Growing market: Potential women customers at a Ford showroom in New Delhi. Ankit Agrawal/Mint
Sofue is manager, attractiveness creation group for women, at Nissan’s customer-oriented engineering department. Her job is to convince women members of a family to purchase a Nissan and provide feedback to make the company’s models more desirable for women.
Car makers such as Nissan are going the extra mile to understand the needs and desires of women in India—underscoring women’s growing role in the purchase of high-value items such as cars and homes, traditionally a decision taken by male members of the family.
The change has been brought about by rising education levels and ability to pursue a career, which gives women more purchasing power.
“When it comes to spending money, traditionally women have had little opportunity as they were expected to manage the household budget rather than play any role in house- or car-buying decisions,” said Sharad Sarin, a marketing professor at Xavier Labour Research Institute, Jamshedpur, and an expert on consumer behaviour. “Today, that is changing. Globalization, liberalization and a growing emphasis on education have helped to raise the status of women in a family.”
Sarin gave another example to make his point. “In the 1960s, if you see, we hardly used to have cigarettes made for women. But over a period of time, we have seen mild, menthol, lights and what not. So, this evolution is happening in this sector.”
Economic independence and education have made women more assertive about their choices. More than ever, women engineers and designers are influencing the outcome of vehicles to help make them more women-friendly.
Globally, women make up around 40-45% of automobile consumers. “But in India, there may not be more than 15-20% women drivers in the country and most of them are in the metro cities,” said Sarin. “Paying attention to the women segment is not new, but their growing importance in the auto segment is a welcome change.”
Not surprisingly, car makers are increasingly designing vehicles with women’s comfort in mind. So far, cars designed for developed markets in the US and Europe and sold in India fail to factor that Indian women are shorter than their Western counterparts.
“Hardly anybody pays attention over the height of the seat or the size of the bonnet,” said Sarin. “So, there is a definite market in that segment. In the future, I am sure more and more car makers will pay attention to that.”
Sofue and others like her are leading the change by designing models that are attractive and comfortable for women in a market where passenger vehicle production is expected to surge more than fourfold to nine million units a year by 2020, according to government estimates.
“I am responsible for the products to be attractive for female customers,” said Sofue in an emailed response to a query. “I am specialized to analyse the difference of male/female from physical, behavioural and mental aspects and to plan the product specifications to be attractive for female customers.”
In the 1990s, most cars came with a courtesy mirror only on the passenger side, never on the driver’s side. The notion was that while men would drive, women would sit and do their make-up on the passenger seat. Today, most cars come with such mirrors on both sides.
“If you have noticed in our new WagonR, there is a tray under the driver’s seat where women can keep their boots and drive with comfort,” said Mayank Pareek, managing executive officer, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. “We keep these things in mind while manufacturing a car.”
Even men who do not include women directly in the purchase decision are influenced by what they perceive women’s impression of the vehicle would be.
In mature automobile markets such as the US, women car ownership is as high as 45%. That excludes many women who drive vehicles registered under a male member of their family.
“Considering these factors, Nissan Motor had established the group to work intensively on product development for female customers,” said Sofue, who is now in China working on a similar study for Nissan.
India is not a unique case, but some factors are peculiar to the country. “Women’s opinions matter surely for family cars. Normally, it is a joint decision,” Sofue said. Many a time a “car is purchased and registered under a male name, but chosen and driven by female owners, such as wives and daughters.”
Many women feel they aren’t being taken seriously at the dealership—a challenge for car companies in an environment where every sale counts. Some dealerships are even offering sensitivity training to the male salesmen.
“Women are very capable of bargaining and want to be involved in the process,” said Pradeep Saxena, a former marketing veteran with Hero Honda Motors Ltd and now a market researcher with TNS Automotive. “There’s a missed opportunity when dealers don’t hear what women want and what they need, especially when women have more purchasing power and are more involved in decision-making.”
Rising competition will mean car makers may have to introduce at least two-three models a year, said Jatin Chawla, sector analyst with India Infoline Ltd.
The nation’s automotive sector will become the fourth largest in the world by 2015, overtaking the European market, consultancy firm Booz and Co. said last month.
With more models to choose from, car makers such as Nissan and Maruti have realized the importance of wooing women, a segment that will grow in numbers among car buyers.
“At the end of the day, if you ignore women in today’s world you will lose business,” said Saxena.
Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.