On a recent hot summer night outside Detroit, a 62-year-old woman sat in a chair watching the Telegraph Cruise, a classic-car parade on Telegraph Avenue in Taylor, Mich., when a stranger approached and began asking questions.
What kind of car did she drive? Why had she chosen that automobile? What did this choice say about her identity?
The stranger, it turned out, was Chris Lezotte, a Ph.D candidate at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, who was doing ethnographic research for her dissertation on the relationship women have with cars.
Ms. Lezotte is one of a small army of researchers trying to get inside the heads of women who need transportation—"to uncover the various meanings women ascribe to cars in a variety of contexts," as she puts it. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute put out a study in 2012 showing that the number of women drivers in the U.S. had surpassed that of men, 105.7 million to 104.3 million, as of 2010.
Women accounted for 39% of car purchases in 2013, up from 37% four years earlier, according to J.D. Power. That may not seem like a big change, until you consider that Americans bought almost 15.6 million cars last year. A 2% shift represents more than 300,000 vehicles.
When a man buys a car, there is often a woman behind the decision, according to the buzz in auto circles. Globally, women are "making the final decision on more than 60% of new car purchases," said Carlos Ghosn, president and chief executive of Nissan Motor Co, in a speech in July.
Melody Lee, director of brand and reputation strategy for General Motors Co.'s Cadillac division, says she believes women wield influence in anywhere from 85% to 95% of car purchases. "That's what we're seeing in our showrooms and that's what our dealers are telling us," she said.
Here's another statistic, culled from her research: "If 74% of women feel that they are misunderstood [by car marketers] but they're influencing up to 95% of our car purchases—that's a huge missed opportunity there," she says.
Chris Lezotte, a Ph. D candidate studying women's relationships
with their cars, in her 1949 Ford Coupe. Alan Kalter
Researchers say demographic shifts offer more reasons for auto makers to refine their sales pitch to women. Women earn more, marry later and divorce more often than they used to. And both women (and men) can be formidable customers, arriving at the dealership armed with research found online, so they aren't at the mercy of a salesman.
At the same time, social media give women "a voice that can impact brands like no other time in history," says Jody DeVere, chief executive of AskPatty, a women's automotive-advisory website.
AskPatty.com is a kind of automotive matchmaking website for women. Its panel of female experts, from automotive executives to magazine editors to race-car drivers, give women advice on buying, maintaining and insuring cars. At the same time, it sells services to automotive companies who want to attract more women customers.
By completing Web-training modules, retailers can be certified by AskPatty.com as "Female Friendly." AskPatty also offers webinars on how to reach women buyers who are Hispanic or baby boomers.
A newer company with some similar aims is Women-drivers.com, which serves as a forum for women to discuss experiences at specific car dealerships. It also offers support for dealers with feedback from women, content for social media and its own market research. Even before Chief Executive Anne Fleming founded the company in 2013, she had begun compiling her own research on car buying, by sending a questionnaire to some 500 women. The company's continuing research has found that women visit an average of 1.9 dealerships before buying. And 47.5% of women who bought a new car went to the dealership by themselves.
Experts have found women are more likely to rely on online customer reviews and friends' opinions when shopping, while men are more likely to turn to expert reviews.
Ford Motor Co. has created a program called "Live.Drive.Love," which offers women 24-hour test drives. Chantel Lenard, director of U.S. marketing for Ford and Lincoln, said, "It's an opportunity [for women] to experience the product on their own time, in their own environments, so they can show it to friends."
What's down the road? Consider this statistic, Ms. Lenard says. Among millennials—the young adults all industries will soon be fighting for, if they aren't already—53% of car buyers are female. A 2013 Autotrader.com study also projects U.S. millennials will be the wealthiest generation ever.
"We're seeing a shift where females are becoming the majority," Ms. Lenard said. "It's an important market and we want to make sure we're delivering on their needs."