The power of the purse

A study cataloging the contents of women's handbags offers valuable insight to marketers. Fortune's Matthew Boyle gets to the bottom of the purse.

By Matthew Boyle, Fortune writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Consumer product companies could gain a bigger share of their female customers' wallets by peering into the dark depths of their purses, according to a new study released today.

The study, one of the first of its kind, analyzed the contents of 100 purses, which were filled, on average, with 67 items, from the mundane (lipstick, phones, gum wrappers) to the unusual (knives, sex aids, even a summons for prostitution).

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Purses are more than just accessories - they're market research.

By cataloging the daily ephemera that's packed into purses and interviewing the women who own them, the study's author, Kelley Styring, believes she's discovered some valuable marketing and innovation opportunities for the makers of everything from candy to cell phones to cosmetics.

"It occurred to me that the only object that connects the home and the store is the purse," says Styring, a consumer insights guru who previously worked in market research at both Procter & Gamble (Charts, Fortune 500) and Frito-Lay. "But it felt completely unexplored to me. There isn't much research out there."

Styring recruited 100 women in malls in Portland, Oregon and Dallas to unload the contents of their purses (the volunteers were paid $30), and then grilled them for an hour about what their purse means to them, using interviewing techniques she honed at P&G.

Here's what she found: Ninety-five percent of women aged 18 to 64 carry a purse every day, and those women use, on average, two to three purses on a regular basis. (One woman owned 115.) By extrapolating those figures to the United States population, Styring estimates that 88.5 million women use over 212 million purses at any given time.

Styring goes a step further, though; assuming, conservatively, that most products in a purse are bought once a month, she estimates that there are 2.5 billion - yes, billion - potential purchase opportunities out there for consumer product firms. "The brands that address this will win," she says. (Watch a video about the study)

But how to address it? By tailoring items to solve the most vexing aspect of a purse - it's meant to organize a woman's life, yet most purses are "dirty, disorganized messes," says Styring, who runs a market research consultancy in Oregon called InsightFarm. One woman carried seven cigarette lighters in her purse, because she could never find one. Others frequently missed phone calls because their cell phone was buried so deep in the recesses of their bag.

Not only are items hard to locate in a purse, but they're also not durable enough to survive the daily wear and tear. Says Styring: "If you are Cover Girl and your product packaging is very glamorous, yet it's destroyed when you put it in a purse, is that any good?"

Working with an industrial designer, Styring came up with 20 suggestions for new products or devices that would be easy to find in a purse, hard to damage and could even kill germs inside the purse. For example, she proposes individually-wrapped tissues, because "you would not imagine the snotty tissues we pulled out of bags."

To encourage women to carry beverages in their purse, Styring came up with a holster that hangs on the side of a bag and could be stored away when not in use. "Women can't live on gum alone," she says.

And to stop all those missed phone calls, Styring also suggests that cell phone makers crank up the volume, or design phones that are more discernible to the touch.

While Styring hasn't made any headway yet with the Nokias and Motorolas of the world, she said that her existing candy and beverage industry clients are very keen to put her findings into practice. "The purse is the Holy Grail - where transactions happen," she says. Top of page