Consumer electronics is no longer the realm of the macho man who knows all about woofers and wi-fi. Retailers have discovered that women play a significant role in purchasing consumer electronics, says Jim Neal, principal with Kurt Salmon Associates. In fact, 46 percent of women polled by the Consumer Electronics Association in January said they have the most influence in their household over such purchases.

Apple has tried to appeal to women at the 84 boutiques it has rolled out since 2001. Now Sony is following suit. What was once an aberration has become “almost a marketplace imperative,” says Neal.

“Apple is the poster child for selling consumer electronics to women,” says George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants.

Apple uses design to reinforce its brand, says James Rosenfield, national director of retail services at Cushman & Wakefield. Apple's just-launched mini-stores have the sleek style and clean lines of the iPod, while its lower Manhattan flagship, housed in an old post office with its transparent walkway and huge skylight, is more like an open iBook.

Sony has joined the fray with an ambitious schedule that calls for 30 stores by 2006. “Typically, in consumer electronics, when a husband and wife go into the store, the guy thinks, ‘it's fabulous,’ and the women thinks, ‘get me out of here,’” says Dennis Syracuse, director of Sony Style retail. “Our stores are smaller and more intimate.”

Sony Style boutiques are also located near high-fashion stores and malls, where women tend to shop. The stores provide wide aisles for strollers and have inviting color schemes. There's also a concierge desk, which Sony research shows appeals to women. Playstations near the cashiers “make for more of a family experience,” says Syracuse.

Not everyone is convinced. “I'm a little skeptical of Sony going after women,” says Whalin. “Best Buy has also been talking about that lately, but I don't think it's going to set the world on fire.”

Here's why, he says. Salespeople at consumer electronic retailers are conditioned to talking about products in a way that's not woman-friendly. “Now if Sony is able to change that way of selling products, it will go a long way toward helping them.”

Being female-friendly matters. Lowe's has had greater success in the home improvement market than rival Home Depot partly because the former extends a warmer welcome to women, says Neal. Lowe's “takes women seriously by not presenting their stores as a warehouse, by offering a more women-friendly mix, by presenting products in solution formats and by teaching homebuilding,” he says. “Maybe that's now becoming more visible in consumer electronics.”

Malls are key to attracting women, says Stan Eichelbaum, president of Marketing Developments Inc. “When you're in malls that are 65 percent-plus oriented to female shopping you want to take maximum advantage.”

These stores also let consumer electronics retailers explain and advertise their technical products in a way that informs the buyer but also differentiates them from commodities. “They are breaking from the pack,” says Eichelbaum. “They're connecting to consumers in a mature way, and not just picking up another 60 seconds on the Super Bowl.”

The key to success, suggests Rosenfield, isn't just attracting women, or generating big sales. Showcase stores like Apple, Sony Style and Nike Town “get you excited about the product,” in a way that is difficult to value. To Rosenfield, “they are building a brand.”