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A TCI Book Review

Why We Buy - The Science of Shopping

Paco Underhill
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-684-84913-5

Paco Underhill describes himself as an urban geographer and retail anthropologist. He is the founder of Envirosell, a research and consulting firm that specializes in improving retail environments in order to sell more product. His fundamental research methodology is to track customers as they move through stores; observe (unobtrusively) their browsing and purchasing patterns; and take detailed notes of how long they spend in each area of the store, what they touch and look at, what they buy, how much they spend, etc. etc. After more than twenty years of doing this, he has compiled a hugely detailed data base of shopper behavior patterns. He can tell you, for example, that 65% of males who take jeans into a fitting room will buy them, as opposed to 25% of women. Or that 4% of browsers will buy a computer on Saturday at noon, compared to 21% of browsers on the same day at 5 o'clock. Why We Buy is a summary of some of the important findings coming out of that research.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part considers the mechanics of shopping: how people physically react to the layout of space, other people in the store, etc. The second part deals with the demographics of purchasing: the different behaviours of men, women, seniors, and kids. The third section of the book tackles the dynamics of shopping: in other words how shoppers respond psychologically to the placement of merchandise, packaging, and other features of the merchandise itself.

The book is filled with fascinating insights and statistics that come from this 'unobtrusive observation' method of analyzing consumer behaviour, and they are written up in a very readable and entertaining manner. As an example, in the first part of the book Underhill talks about how most retailers do not realize that the 'transition zone' between the outside and the inside of the store - that space just inside the door, where shoppers are adjusting to the interior of the place - is very ineffective selling space:

"Boom. We hit the doors and we're inside. Still got that momentum going, too. Have you ever seen anyone cross the threshold of a store and then screech to a dead stop the instant they're inside? Neither have I. Good way to cause a pileup. Come over here, stand with me now and watch the doors. What happens once the customers get inside? You can't see it, but they're busy making adjustments - simultaneously they're slowing down their pace, adjusting their eyes to the change in light and scale, and craning their necks to begin taking in all there is to see. Meanwhile their ears and noses and nerve endings are sorting out the rest of the stimuli - analyzing the sounds and smells, judging whether the store is warm or cold. There's a lot going on, in other words, and I can pretty much promise you this: These people are not truly in the store yet. You can see them, but it will be a few seconds before they're actually here. If you watch long enough, you'll be able to predict exactly where most shoppers slow down and make the transition from being outside to being inside. It's at just about the same place for everybody, depending on the layout of the store.

All of which means that whatever's in the zone they cross before making that transition is pretty much lost on them. If there's a display of merchandise, they're not going to take it in. If there's a sign, they'll probably be moving too fast to absorb what it says. If the sales staff hits them with a hearty "Can I help you?" the answer's going to be "No, thanks". I guarantee it. Put a pile of flyers or a stack of shopping baskets just inside the door: Shoppers will barely see them, and will almost never pick them up. Move them ten feet in and the flyers and baskets will disappear. It's a law of nature - shoppers need a landing strip." (pp. 46.47)

One fundamental (and probably not too surprising) result of Underhill's research into shopper behaviour is that the amount of money spent in a store is positively correlated with the amount of time spent. (Simply: keep 'em in the store longer and they'll spend more dough.) Accordingly, much of Envirosell's research on the mechanics of shopping deals with strategies to do this. Some insights dealing with the mechanics of shopping that bear on this include:

  • the "butt brush" effect - if aisles are too narrow or crowded, and shoppers have to bend over to reach merchandise, they are exposed to being brushed or touched by other shoppers as they pass by - this is a definite turn-off to shoppers (especially women), and will reduce the amount of time spent in the store and thus the total amount of money spent
  • shoppers need the use of their hands to touch, feel, pick up and examine merchandise - if they are burdened down with a coat, several other items that they have picked up, a toddler, etc., they will spend less time in the store than if they had a shopping cart, access to a coat check, strollers, baskets (placed inside the sore interior where they could actually be useful to someone who has already accumulated a few items), etc.
  • very often, signs in retail environments contain too many words to be scanned quickly, and are placed in locations where they will never be noticed - "Putting a sign that requires twelve seconds to read in a place where customers spend four seconds is just slightly more effective than putting it in your garage." (p.63)
  • the typical movement and flow patterns of people are important to know in designing retail environments - for example, individuals tend to turn to the right when moving through a store - another tidbit: people tend to slow down when they approach reflective surfaces - Chapter 6 of the book is filled with little pointers like this
  • providing convenient and strategically located seating areas for customers will, again, keep them in the store longer and thus increase the amount sold
  • adjacencies can be very important in the placement of merchandise in order to maximize sales - for example, the salsa should be next to the chips, not in the condiments section - the pasta sauce should be in the pasta section, not next to the salsa
The second part of the Why We Buy is devoted to a discussion of the demographics of shopping - how different types of customers vary in their attitudes and approaches to shopping. Four main segments are considered: men, women, seniors and kids. Some of the more interesting observations that Underhill makes here include:

Regarding men:

  • only 72% of men read price tags on items, as compared to 86% of women - for a man, ignoring the price tag is a measure of his virility
  • when a man accompanies a woman shopping, her time in the store is drastically cut down (women accompanying other women while shopping spend almost twice as much time in a store as a woman and a man)

Regarding women:

  • women generally take pleasure and pride in the shopping experience (as opposed to men, who generally just want to get in and get out, unless they are shopping for specific male-oriented items such as power tools, stereos or computers) - accordingly, the shopping environment for women should be relaxing, pleasant, featuring all of the positive layout factors previously discussed that will keep them in the store for a longer period of time
  • as women take on more of the responsibilities of shopping for all items (as a result of more single family households and a general breaking down of the traditional sex-oriented shopping roles in the family) the traditional male retail preserves (such as Joe's Hardware) will become more oriented towards women's shopping preferences (the demise of Joe's hardware in favour of places like Home Depot attest to this trend)

Regarding seniors:

Underhill makes the sobering point that many of us will spend more time being old that the time we had being young. It follows then that store layouts and packaging design will have to change in order to accommodate us aging baby boomers. This will include larger print on packages (older eyes have difficultly reading anything less than 12 point type); better lighting in stores (older eyes at age 50 receive about 25% less light than eyes at age 20 due to discolouration of the cornea); and sharper colour distinction on signs and certain store areas (for example, on stairs, where it is critical that older patrons be able to easily distinguish the rise from the run part of the step, to avoid tripping).

Store layout, too, will need to be redesigned with larger aisles and ramps to accommodate walkers and motorized wheelchairs.

Regarding kids:

Most of this section is devoted to really young kids, and there are some fairly predictable suggestions and points raised. He says, for example, that merchandise oriented towards kids has got to be placed at eye level for those kids - that is, about three feet off the floor. He also makes the point that retailers have got to provide for parents who are shopping with kids in tow by providing safe distractions and diversions for those kids, leaving the parents free for a few minutes of uninterrupted shopping. Again, the principle that the longer the shopper spends in the store the more they will spend comes into play.

The final third of the book is devoted to a discussion of how shoppers psychologically react to shopping environments. Much of this discussion covers and reinforces ground that he dealt with in earlier sections of the book, but there is some additional material introduced. A couple of points he makes here are:

  • many stores do not provide opportunities for shoppers to touch and feel the merchandise, and yet this sensual experience can be very influential in making the sale in fact, Underhill devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 12) to the 'sensual shopper', where he emphasizes the importance of engaging the senses in the shopping experience (a prime example he uses here is the smell of freshly baked bread that greets one upon entering some supermarkets, which he can correlate directly with increased spending)
  • lines and time spent waiting at the checkout can ruin the entire shopping experience even if the overall shopping expedition has been wonderful, the perception that too much time is being spent in line can ruin the entire experience for many customers. Underhill estimates that about two minutes is the limit of most people's tolerance - after that, they do the slow burn. He recommends a variety of distractions that can be place strategically in order to change the perception of how much time is being spent waiting.
Why We Buy makes for interesting reading if you're a marketer, and probably fascinating (and likely essential) reading if you're a retailer. Either way, it's an interesting and enjoyable book.






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