ACWORTH, Ga. -- Although Barbara Milliken wanted to take wood shop in high school, her principal said it would be a disruption to the all-male class. She was steered to home economics instead.
At 63, Milliken is finally learning how to cut wood. She's also being taught how to build tables and repair electrical outlets with a dozen other women in classes held at The Home Depot in this suburb 30 miles north of Atlanta.
Home Depot and other stores, seeking to tap into a growing female consumer base, are catering to an increasing number of women who are taking on stereotypically male tasks like home improvement.
''From the retailer perspective, this is a consumer who is getting a growing share of the decisions,'' said Jim Neal, an industry strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates in Atlanta. ''They want to reach out to that decisionmaker and make her feel very comfortable.''
The Home Depot's all-women classes have surged in popularity over the past 12 months. One class in Buffalo, N.Y., was attended by 130 women. Neal cited advertisements and television shows focusing on home improvement projects as a reason for the increase.
Demographics also plays a part. The National Homebuyer's Asso-ciation found that the number of women home buyers has more than doubled in the past decade. A Home Depot survey two years ago found that 68 percent of women cite home improvement stores as the place to turn for expert advice, ranking them higher than magazines, books or the Internet.
''There are a substantial number of households that have women as the primary person responsible for home care and maintenance,'' Neal said. ''An increasing number of women are taking the lead on home improvement projects, ranging from painting to other tasks.''
In a tiny room in the back of the Acworth Home Depot, the group of women in the class listened attentively one night in mid-December as instructor Al Carrato showed them how to repair and install an electrical light switch. The weekly sessions have been dubbed ''Monday Night Football'' classes, as many of the participants' husbands were home watching the game.
Milliken said the first Christmas gift her father gave her was a hammer and nail set, so it was natural that she would grow to enjoy handiwork.
''The thing was when I wasn't married, I had to do things myself,'' she said.
Connie Davis, 37, a stay-at-home-mom, said her husband tends not to want to do home repairs, so she has had to pick up the slack. The classes, she said, have taught her how to fix the things that her two young children break.
Another participant, Chris Allison Hagen, 52, said there are a lot of single women who come to the classes, too.
''You've got a lot of single, professional women and they have no dependence on a man,'' Hagen said. ''I owned a house when I was divorced, and I put my skills to use. I had to.''
Besides Atlanta-based Home Depot, its competitors also offer the home improvement lessons. Wilkesboro, N.C.-based Lowe's offers coed classes at its stores. Spokesperson Matt Van Vleet said company surveys found that the women who attended preferred that men join them in the classes.
''Women are a very important customer base for us,'' Van Vleet said. ''We estimate that women initiate 80 percent of all home improvement projects and represent half of Lowe's customer base. So that's significant.''
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