Why We Buy, Paco Underhill

Simon & Schuster, 1999, 256 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84913-5

The next time you’re out shopping, pay attention: someone may be looking at you. No, I’m not talking about security cameras or other shoppers checking you out (though, hey, enjoy the attention if you can get it). I’m talking about people like Paco Underhill, shopping scientists studying the habits and behaviour of ordinary consumers in a retail environment. Perhaps more accurately called “retail naturalists” than “shopping scientists”, Underhill and members of his consulting firm Envirosell spend hundreds of hours per year following shoppers, analyzing store layouts, looking at store signs and trying to improve the shopping experience.

Why We Buy is Underhill’s first book, and it brings together several of Underhill’s painstakingly-developed theories about the modern state of shopping. At a time where North-American shopping has nowhere to go (ie; no fast population growth, no rapidly increasing income levels), the only alternative is to sell more efficiently. That’s where consultants like Underhill come in: by studying the way we shop, they can identify problems and fix what’s clearly not working.

One easy example: The “landing strip”. You can’t just walk inside a store and start shopping: You need time and space to adjust, remove your sunglasses or your toque (depending on the season), take stock of the store’s layout or pick up a shopping cart. Clever managers won’t try to put merchandising inside the “landing strip”, but will exploit the area in more subtle ways.

Another easy example: The “butt-brush” aversion. North American simply don’t like being touched (even accidentally) when they’re bending down. Trying to make them bend in confined spaces, where closely-arranged shelves only allow for a limited amount of space, is an exercise in futility. Solution: more space, and re-arrange merchandise so that people who can’t bend (older people, for instance) won’t have to.

Both of these things may sound like common sense, but at a time when increasingly chain-driven shopping is being managed from corporate headquarters, retail operations can need a reality-check. The drive to rationalize operations by using fewer clerks, minimal wages, more crowded shelving can actually decrease sales rather than improve operations. In a competitive industry where even tiny adjustments can make the differences between black and red ink, Envirosell’s advice clearly finds a market.

This type of information is a boon to retailers (one can imagine a conscientious store manager reading this book and making significant changes to his store), but it’s just as interesting to the consumer cattle being studied. It’s impossible to read even two pages of Why we Buy without a sigh of acknowledgement as Underhill explains how the retail industry works, or at least ought to work. But be forewarned; Underhill comes to the store to improve it, not to destroy it: His lucrative perspective isn’t one of a consumer muckraker, but a merchant optimizer. While the two often coincide (a happier shopper is a bigger spender), you will not find in Why We Buy a critique of consumerism or a scathing exposé of modern marketing techniques. Lavish consumerism is seen as a desirable objective to attain, and Underhill spears nearly all of his time suggesting ways to improve the spending experience.

The other problem with Why We Buy is that Underhill has so much experience in stalking the habits of the wild shoppers in retail environments that his perspective is limited is areas other than his own. His “suggestions” for bookstores will be greeted with aghast stares by book-lovers, while his own open contempt for the “cyberjockeys” driving on-line shopping betrays both ignorance and shortsightedness.

Still, for shoppers both enthusiastic and reluctant, Why We Buy is a compulsively readable, highly informative book. Deliciously written and stuffed with telling examples, it’s a way to deconstruct the shopping experience and understand our behaviour. (I thought Underhill was indulging in gratuitous stereotypes as he was describing female shoppers… until he started describing the habits of male shoppers, which are pretty much spot-on identical to mine.) It may be a book solely about how more dollars can be squeezed out of our wallets, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *