Men still account for most on-line shopping activity, but women are closing the gap fast, according to a recent study.

The study, based on 1,000 interviews with people who spend an hour or more per week on-line (excluding e-mail), showed 55% of men and 46% of women made on-line purchases this year. Last year the gender gulf was more a pronounced 51% to 37%.

Leon Majors, research director for on-line financial services at Tampa-based PSI Globe, said people who have made electronic purchases are primed for internet banking because they appreciate the benefits of 0n-line services and have been introduced to security and navigation issues.

 Therefore, the survey data suggest a large upside to tailoring on-line services and marketing campaigns to women.

“Women are going to be the leading force in on-line banking,” said Bernadette Tracy, president of NetSmart America, the New York-based marketing company that conducted the survey. “They are in charge of the finances in the home and have more buying power.”

According to the study, entitled “What Makes America Click,” about 58% of “newbies” – people who have less than one year of on-line experience – are women. And since, according to Ms. Tracy, “on-line purchases are a function of the number of years on-line,” a surge of on-line financial activity is expected from women in the coming years. By 2002, a full 60% of all people on-line will be women, NetSmart America predicts. “This is a wake-up call for bankers,” Ms. Tracy said.

Some already have heard the alarm.

For example, First Bethany (Okla.) Bank and Trust is aiming marketing and services specifically at women business owners.  The bank’s Web site features information on the local women’s business center, and the bank participates in a class that teaches business women how to get access to capital.

“Women are a market we want to reach because they are the fastest-growing population of business owners” said Cheri Williams, assistant vice president for marketing at the bank.

First Bethany is not the only female-friendly bank.

Charlotte-based First Union Corp. serves up a Web page offering female-specific advice on personal finance, retirement planning and finding a financial advisor.  And Union Bank of California has links to women.com, a Web site that is dedicated to women’s issues.

Because tailoring on-line services to women is a relatively new phenomenon, statistics on its effectiveness are few. But Ms. Tracy said these efforts at the very least are heading in the right direction.

 “Banks have to prepare strategies for 2002 when women will outnumber men,” she said.  “Though many women are not banking on-line now, they will be banking on-line in droves later, while the number of men on-line will plateau.”

Ms. Tracy said her company’s research shows women tend to use the internet as a tool for simplifying their lives. Unlike men, who lean towards surfing and trying out new things, women usually want to take care of business and log off.

Banks need to take such preferences into account when designing services for women.

“Unfortunately, we are a nation that stereotypes people, and banks haven’t realized women are their prime prospects in the future,” Ms. Tracy said.

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