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WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor)

Men learn to listen to their spouses on big purchases

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kimberly Blanton
Globe Staff / June 28, 2004

It is a bitter memory for Cameron Smith. He was 25 and newly married. While his wife worked one Saturday, he bought himself an $800 stereo with a credit card, set it up, and spent a blissful afternoon on the futon couch, listening to REM and the Grateful Dead.

But a thought occurred to him while driving that evening to pick up his wife: how to explain the stereo?

"We came in, and I said, 'Look what I bought, honey!' She took one look at me and said, 'That can go back, right?' Maybe it was more like, 'That can go back.' "

The stereo went back. "I learned my lesson," said Smith, a manager at LNS Communications in Cambridge who will be married 10 years in August.

"We were newly married with no money to be spending on stereos," said Gretchen Smith.

All men know it, though few will volunteer that they are under its spell: Wife Acceptance Factor.

Men like toys, electronics, sports cars, golf memberships. Then they get married, and wives have a say, even veto power. Torn between their own desires and preserving their marriages, the men of the new millennium are learning about WAF.

Wife-persuasion tactics are common water-cooler chatter, and WAF has spread like wildfire in chat rooms, where men grumble anonymously about difficult wives. It is debated on the Web in German, Dutch, and French. And amid controversy over same-sex marriage, the concept of SAF, or Spouse Approval Factor, has crept into the vernacular of gay and lesbian couples.

WAF is so powerful that it is rapidly changing the nature, design, and even the color of electronics and other consumer goods. Electronics manufacturers are shifting to products with high WAF: flat-screen televisions, "invisible" speakers recessed into walls, user-friendly touch screens, and components in colors that women like. Apple's wildly popular iPod mini -- in pink, lime green, baby blue, silver, or gold -- represents the ultimate integration of form (for gals) and function (for guys).

"Because women are much more sensitive to the decor of the home, they are forcing manufacturers to reexamine their design because it needs to meet both their criteria," said Michael Tchong, who included a chapter on WAF in his report, Trendscape 2004. "In the past, the Japanese kept pouring out equipment -- the big ugly, black, bulky stuff with cords. People are finally thinking that we need to grow market share, and let's address the design aesthetic of the other half of the household."

The first known WAF reference was in a 1989 article about wives' rebellion against "oversized loudspeakers." In the 1970s, gigantic floor speakers were cool -- and, given the technology, they sounded better. But by the 1990s, new technology and WAF ushered in the small speaker.

The ascendance of WAF-influenced products also springs from a profound economic shift: the prevalence of two-income households. It should not be confused with the latte factor, those Starbucks purchases that add up over time. Two-earner couples do not consult each other when spending a few dollars, even a few hundred. WAF strife is reserved for big purchases.

A motorcycle, for example. Bowing to his wife's wishes, Lewis Frost, 46, got rid of the 1200cc BMW motorcycle he had purchased -- he says accidentally -- on eBay. He placed the minimum, or "reserve," bid and, to his surprise, won, he said. Karen Frost sees the incident as a "subconscious desire to stay footloose."

The rules in their seven-year marriage were established long ago. If an item costs, say, $1,000, "I'll run it past her," said Frost, a Boston money manager. "If I really want it, I might get her the same thing." In place of a motorcycle, he got a Nissan 350Z. She got a Honda Element. "It was to my benefit, the whole motorcycle thing," she said.

The future of WAF can be found at Home Entertainment Expo in Sudbury, which sells high-tech, home-entertainment systems for $5,000 to $800,000. Its upscale customers buy not just a system but a package that looks good.

"We built this place around WAF," said Jim Ares, director of design and operations. "The guys want to do it, and we show them how to do it so the girls like it." Expo was opened in October by Adtech Systems, which installs commercial systems, in response to growing demand for home video and sound systems.

Expo's wordworking shop makes furniture to house speakers or entire entertainment systems. Speakers and components are part of the furniture design, in cherry or rosewood. One cabinet conceals a flat-panel TV that rises out of the top for viewing and then sinks back into the cabinet. Components can also be tucked away in the basement. Touch pads allow homeowners to control audio, video, lighting, and climate control from one place in the house. Expo also sells cushy leather recliners with its in-home theaters. "This stuff goes out the door every day," Ares said.

The Levines recently purchased a Brookline house that they are gutting and renovating. Their new Expo system will include an entertainment room for their children and wireless touch pads all over the house to control everything, even the drapes.

Ken Levine, a former Cabletron executive who retired young, likes gadgets. "He wants all the bells and whistles," said his wife, Charley, also a retired tech executive, "and I'm asking, 'What's it going to look like?' "

She is sold on thin-screen high-definition televisions displayed in the showroom and wants four: for the master bedroom, family room, carriage house, and her husband's office. The flat TVs are recessed into the wall and custom-framed to look like paintings. A shade, with an art reproduction, rolls down and covers the television when it's not in use. She plans to conceal the bedroom TV behind a portrait of a Japanese Chin dog.

Her design sensibilities met resistance in one room: Ken Levine's office. He bristled at her suggestion that a world map conceal his TV. Men, he said, "wear our big-screen TVs on our sleeves."

WAF's influence also extends to the mainstream. It is behind exploding sales of thin-screen TVs, said Lee Simonson, director of Best Buy Co.'s television unit. Flat-panel TVs are the biggest thing to hit the industry since color. Women prefer its "hanging picture" effect to bulky tube TVs, which are losing popularity. Shipments of flat-panel TVs in 2004 are projected to double from the 2002 figure, to 2.2 million, while dollar sales of shipments will quadruple in the same period to $3.3 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Women "are far more interested in this new flat-panel technology," Simonson said. "We've even heard stories of wives dragging husbands to replace the big, black-box TV in their living room."

Boston Acoustics, a speaker manufacturer, designs products around WAF. Products like "flush-mount speakers," recessed into a wall or ceiling, are targeted to "almost affluent" consumers, said David Kroll, national sales manager. Shipments to US dealers of in-wall and wall-mounted speakers more than doubled to 275,000 units in the first four months of this year, compared with the same period in 2003, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Sales of floor speakers are dropping. "Originally you bought speakers for the sound quality," Kroll said, but "the aesthetics now play a more important role than the performance."

Easy-to-use control panels are another WAF-influenced trend in electronics. Boston Acoustics is introducing a entertainment system with a handheld touch screen. To watch a DVD, rather than turn off the television or cable box, and turn on the stereo and the DVD player, one button, marked "DVD," does it all.

Color is of paramount importance to women. Take the "black-silver controversy." Men like black stereos, black sunglasses, and big, black SUVs with dark windows. "Men want Darth Vader," Tchong said, while women want silver.

On ecoustics.com recently, "Goose" asked fellow audiophiles for help in a frantic search for a silver version -- demanded by his wife -- of a specific receiver he had finally won her approval to buy. "Hawk" suggested he buy a black one and order a silver faceplate to put over it, an idea shot down quickly in the chat room.

The conversation devolved into wife-grousing. Goose said his wife "worries the knobs on the kitchen cabinets don't match the bedroom doorknobs." "Man," replied Hawk, "your story sounds familiar."

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.

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