Neighbors Joan Wiese and Laurie Yeager recently got together for an evening out. But instead of meeting at a restaurant or at home, they went shopping -- at the Mustard Seed, a landscape and garden center in Chaska that was hosting a "ladies night."

"It's nice to have a girls' night out in a more relaxed atmosphere," said Wiese, who liked the unusual product offerings, including the scented flameless candles she and Yeager bought to share. "And wine is good," Wiese said approvingly as she sipped her complimentary glass of chardonnay.

Yeager agreed. "I would definitely do this again."

Odds are the Chaska neighbors won't have trouble finding other female-friendly, wine-infused shopping events. The ladies night tradition started in clubs and bars but has moved to fashion boutiques, home- decor shops and, yes, garden centers.

"It's a kick-off to our holiday season," said Kelly Lorenz, retail manager at the Mustard Seed, who arranged cheese cubes on a serving platter as women browsed vendor booths set up in the greenhouse. "It's an in-between week for us, and it would be a pretty quiet Thursday night if we didn't have something going on. It gives us a little bit of a boost. Hopefully, they'll come back, knowing we have Christmas items."

Cherie Wiltse of Hookin' Hats in Shakopee, sat behind a table selling her handmade crocheted caps. "This is the first [ladies night] I've done," she said. "Usually I sell at craft shows, but those are eight hours and this is just two. Plus I love the idea that they serve wine. People are more likely to spend money."

On this November evening, women also were gathering on the other side of the Twin Cities for a cowgirl-themed ladies night -- dubbed "Don't Fence Me In" -- in downtown Stillwater.

"It was really well-attended," said Meg Brownson, owner of Alfresco Casual Living, a Stillwater home and garden store. The city's Independent Business Alliance has been hosting women's shopping nights for 2 1/2 years, complete with swag bags for the first to arrive, drawings, door prizes and a charity partner.

"We started during the recession, to get people to think about downtown as a fun place to be," she said. "Now we have a lot of regulars, and groups."

And it's been good for business. "Women do spend more," she said.

That's borne out by research, said Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

"There's a sense of camaraderie. People encourage each other," she said. Women and men tend to spend more when shopping with same-sex friends, Vohs said, while the presence of the opposite sex tends to remind people of their spouse and, by extension, their budget.

And a free drink definitely helps, Vohs said. "Alcohol is a known disinhibitor. It loosens people up." So do freebies. "When you get something for free, there's a strong pull to want to reciprocate [by making a purchase]. It's why free samples work. It's a very basic urge humans have, and retailers can exploit that."

Wine is optional at the Stillwater Ladies' Nights, Brownson said. "We don't want to encourage a lot of drinking -- we want it to be about shopping -- but we don't dictate what [stores] do," she said. "If there is wine, it's in very tiny little cups. Besides, we want them to go buy wine at the restaurants."

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum typically offers a cash bar at the ladies nights it hosts several times a year, most recently during this fall's deer-hunting season opener.

"The guys are gone for the weekend, so it's a good time to come out with your girlfriends," said Jackie Riemer, reservations and event specialist.

Ladies nights "started as a way to bring guests to the arboretum during down times," she said, and women are a natural audience for festive shopping, especially at this time of year. "Women are hyping up for the holiday season and looking for ways to do one-stop shopping."

Ladies nights have become so widespread that the challenge for retailers is finding an evening when there aren't other ladies nights.

"They're definitely getting more popular," Riemer said. "Everyone is doing their own take on ladies night. There's a lot of competition."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784