Why We Buy


Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill, isn’t exactly what the title might imply. It’s not a neuromarketing text, it doesn’t delve deep into the psyches of consumers, and it doesn’t disclose the hidden motivations of shoppers. Despite the lack of colorful brain scans, Why We Buy is an amazingly useful guide for anyone involved in managing or designing retail stores. Underhill and his staff have been observing shoppers for years both in person and by video monitoring, and have collected a wealth of practical advice on how to maximize retail sales.

As a direct marketer, I’ve always liked to work with real sales data. Theorizing is fine, but showing me what you changed and how it affected sales is a whole lot better – when theories hit the road, or perhaps the cash register, they demonstrate whether they are worth the hot air needed to expound them. And Underhill has plenty of this kind of data. He observes consumer behavior in a particular environment, makes changes to that environment, and measures the change in sales.

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Not surprisingly, quite a bit of what Underhill finds is common sense. Time spent waiting to check out, for example, is an irritant to customers and can be a major factor in their perception of their entire store experience. For the first minute and a half, Underhill found, customers can accurately estimate their wait time. After that, a wait can seem much longer than it actually is, causing a marked decline in the overall experience. Conversely, if the store can distract the waiting customer in a positive way – interacting with a store employee, showing funny video short features, etc., had the effect of shortening the perceived wait time.

Some of the findings aren’t quite as obvious. Underhill describes the “butt brush” effect – customers, particularly females, will stop looking at a display (such as a sale table filled with merchandise) as soon as someone brushes past them. The solution in that case is to ensure adequate traffic circulation space around important displays so that shoppers can browse without physical contact. When that happens, shoppers browse longer and buy more.

Underhill spends time on the interpersonal dynamics of shopping. A woman accompanied by another woman will shop longer than one who’s alone, but a woman with a man will stay in the store for the shortest time of all. Observing actual shoppers showed that the male shoppers tended to get antsy first, particularly if the woman was shopping for clothes or other items of little interest to her male companion. Shorter time spent shopping almost always means a smaller total purchase. Despite this, Underhill notes that many stores fail to provide even a chair for the unoccupied companion, much less a diverting waiting area. A pacing, package-laden male is highly likely to cut short his companion’s shopping time. Underhill provides an example of how Pfaltzgraff addressed this issue. Although couples often shopped for expensive china together, observation showed that the males often became bored and started to roam around the department. Store visits often ended without a purchase. The observations showed, however, that men tended to be drawn to the crystal area where they checked out glassware items. The “bored guy” problem was solved by creating a more manly display of barware items where the male shopper felt comfortable and could become a purchaser himself instead of cutting short the couple’s time in the store.

The Sensual Shopper. One area covered by Underhill that’s perhaps somewhat neuromarketing-related is “The Sensual Shopper.” Despite the provocative chapter title, Underhill isn’t writing about marketing adult products, or even using sex to sell. Rather, he’s referring to the need to appeal to multiple senses to increase sales. As in the rest of the book, Underhill offers plenty of advice based on real-life observation. He describes a store that offered ice-cold beverages stored in a case under the counter with a display of empty cans to show customers what was available. Sales were poor. By making the beverages directly visible to the customers, where they could see the condensation or frost on the cans with their own eyes, sales took off. The cans that were obviously cold were far more appealing than the “warm” examples. Underhill notes how important touch is – observations showed that towels were, on average, touched by six different shoppers before being purchased. He is no fan of packaging that prevents a customer from feeling the product, singling out men’s underwear as an example of a category in which a brand would do better if its products were not hermetically sealed in plastic.

Although it was first published in 1999, Why We Buy isn’t dated. It’s all about human nature and how people behave in retail environments, and those areas don’t change rapidly. I’d recommend this book to anyone responsible for retail sales – it’s readily available both new and used, and at 255 pages it’s a quick read packed with observational data.

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