Tag Archives: Paco Underhill

Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 227 pages, C$37.10 hc, ISBN 0-7432-3591-6

After explaining Why We Buy, retail naturalist Paco Underhill sets his sights on shopping malls in Call of the Mall, his second book on the nature of today’s shopping environment. Focused and dramatized through fictive conversations with fellow mall-goers, this follow-up on “the science of shopping” is both a retread and an improvement on the previous book.

Successfully structured as “a day in the mall with Paco Underhill”, Call of the Mall examines the modern institution known as the shopping mall from a variety of aspects, from retail to architecture, security to wilful inaccessibility. In doing so, Underhill shows what’s wrong with malls and why they’re doomed to failure. But don’t take this book for what it’s not: Neither scientific textbook nor anti-capitalistic screed, Call of the Mall is just as focused as Why We Buy on improving the performance of stores, sometimes at the shoppers’ expense and sometimes not.

To give you an idea of how Underhill approaches his subject, consider that he doesn’t take us inside a mall until Chapter 5: In the meantime, he discusses what malls are (a real estate business more than a retail one: mall owners make their money renting space to stores, not selling products), where they’re built (far away from anything else, to keep customers inside as long as possible), how they’re built (not very esthetically) and the whole problematic of finding a parking space. Underhill clearly knows malls: His day job, after all, is to study shopper’s habits, spending hours and hours “in the field”, shadowing shoppers as they normally behave in retail environments. So when he discusses his own emotional attachment to malls, he knows what he’s talking about.

It helps that his writing style is readable like few others. It’s all too easy to be taken with Underhill as he invites us to spend a day at the mall with him. It doesn’t take much to imagine this as a documentary film, as he dramatizes shopping situations with typical customers or invites us to see a food court through his well-trained eyes. Call of the Mall is unpretentious, sometimes superficial, but seldom boring.

At most it can be repetitive, especially if you’re already familiar with his previous Why We Buy: Underhill, after all, has spent his professional career establishing his consulting firm and building his own theories of shopping: If he sticks to the same ideas from one book to another, it’s not dogmatism as much as it’s professional experience. While his tendency to systematize experience can be exasperating, they’re generally on-target: The way he describes male shoppers in malls isn’t quite a perfect match for me, but it’s close enough to make me trust his descriptions of other demographic groups.

But beyond the easy entertainment value of the book lies a series of insights in the world of malls and how they work. If you have ever wondered about food courts, mall toilets, pushcarts, the disappearance of bookstores from suburban malls (hint; it’s not because people don’t read, it’s because people browse more than they buy, especially where they’re waiting for other people), why similar stores are located in clusters or secret entrances to malls, don’t worry: Underhill has studied these things and now he’s ready to tell all about them.

Ironically, Underhill concludes his book by saying that malls are past their heydays. Their “lack of mercantile DNA” [P.202] will prove fatal: Built away from transit routes, slapped together without regard to architecture or communities, those self-sufficient island of shopping are not going to find any supporters when they start falling down (often literally, as they reach their thirtieth or fortieth year). What’s the next step, then? “Big boxes” retailers, on-line shopping or a return to shopping districts? Maybe we’ll have to wait until Underhill’s next book to find out.

Fascinating conclusion, but I couldn’t read the book without tying it to the malls I know and it seems to me as if the Ottawa-area malls have at least a fighting chance. For one thing, they’re all built near transit routes (my own morning bus ride takes me through or near four malls) and often act as transit for people going from one place to another. For another, they’re covered and heated: When you’re dealing with Canadian winters, that’s not an inconsequential factor.

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.