Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why We Buy

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping
© 1997, 2008 Paco Underhill
Simon and Schuster
320 pages

No book on marketing, Why We Buy is an introduction to the novel field of retail anthropology. Young Paco Underhill was once an urban studies student assigned to monitor traffic flow down a given street.  Watching pedestrians interact with the shopping displays and vendors lining it, he had an idea; why not watch the shoppers,  and figure out what about  the goods and services on offer attracted them, and what didn’t?  What made certain products fly off the shelf and others not? That idea was the genesis of his now-successful EnviroSell company, a global operation that’s let him study malls and markets in nearly every continent.  In Why We Buy, he shares some of what he’s learned, offering readers a fascinating look into their own behavior as shoppers.

Why We Buy might as well be titled How We Shop, starting out with an explanation of why its insights may be of value. A store measuring the success a product through sales receipts may be able to say how healthy those sales are, but it can't explain how they were made in the first place, nor is it aware of the opportunities possibly missed. That's where Underhill comes in, studying shoppers' behavior on the floor at length,  using cameras to monitor displays and having paid trackers follow people around in shops noting their every move. It sounds creepy, voyeuristic even, but to Underbill it's strictly business. In three core sections, Underhill explains how the mechanics of human bodies affects the shopping experience, studies demographics and the shopping experience, and examines the 'dynamics' of shopping.  The author's approach is almost like that of a benevolent zookeeper, watching how humans interact with the environment and then offering suggestions as to how it can changed to make them more comfortable and increase sales.  In a chapter that stresses the importance of hands for shopping, Underhill outlines a better strategy for placing shopping baskets than dumping them all in the front: they would be more effective dispersed throughout the store, to be more available to people who started out intending to pick up an item or two but who see more of interest and don't pursue it because their hands are full.  Although shopkeepers may not see it as their job to provide conveniences outside their wares -- seats in a Victoria's Secret, for instance --  humans are an adaptive species whose attempts to meet their needs on their own may disrupt the store.  When waiting husbands and boyfriends decided to claim the window sills of a benchless lingerie store as seats to rest, they spooked every shopper who was adverse to the notion of shopping for bras under a panel of male eyes.  The same is true for items attractive only to children which are placed on top shelves; wouldn't you know it but children have figured out how to stack and climb? So much for the integrity of displays when boxes are tugged out to provide a boost!

Although the information and insights presented here are no doubt valuable to retailers who want to improve their business environment (the book is quoted even in Planning the Modern Public Library) ,  that information is entertaining in its own right. We're a species very much interested in ourselves, and our behavior while shopping is just as respectable as our behavior within a city, in a war, or on a date. I saw myself in more than a few of the observations here, like the overwhelming majority of shoppers who approach a phone and pick it up, not seriously expecting a dial tone but listening intently anyway.  Underhill doesn't seem himself as a marketer, but as an anthropologist, and his anecdotes -- as funny as they are -- only illustrate statistical data.  When he moves away from the data his credibility sharply diminishes; at one point he refers to the reader 'knowing' that grocery stores put staples on the perimeter so that shoppers will be distracted by other goods on the way to them, then uses this to write about products being used as bait for other products. The problem there is that milk and other fresh produce are kept in the back because they're highly perishable and need to be close to the loading bays; there's more to business management than marketing. The book's greatest weakness is a chapter on e-commerce in which Underhill defends his claim in the original book that electronic shopping isn't that big a deal. It's understandable that Underhill would have little to offer on the subject, as his methods don't apply. But to say that online businesses play a minor role or haven't yet devised a means of efficient delivery. in an age where services like Amazon Prime are forcing even big-box stores to shutter up, is fantastically erronous.  He would have been better served conceding the point instead of standing by the indefensible.  Following the dotcom burst in 1997, scoffing at internet retailing is well and good, but in 2007?  That chapter aside, the book is great fun and offers a look at  how commerce will continue to be increasingly dominated by women and aging boomers. 

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