Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping

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Overview

Is there a method to our madness when it comes to shopping? Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a Sherlock Holmes for retailers," author and research company CEO Paco Underhill answers with a definitive "yes" in this witty, eye-opening report on our ever-evolving consumer culture. Why We Buy is based on hard data gleaned from thousands of hours of field research--in shopping malls, department stores, and supermarkets across America. With his team of sleuths tracking our every move, from sweater displays at the mall to the beverage cooler at the drugstore, Paco Underhill lays bare the struggle among merchants, marketers, and increasingly knowledgeable consumers for control.

In his quest to discover what makes the contemporary consumer tick, Underhill explains the shopping phenomena that often go unnoticed by retailers and shoppers alike.

For those in retailing and marketing, Why We Buy is a remarkably fresh guide, offering creative and insightful tips on how to adapt to the changing customer. For the general public, Why We Buy is a funny and sometimes disconcerting look at our favorite pastime.

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Editorial Reviews

Fortune
...[S]crupulously maps the familiar realm of retail...
Patricia T. O'Conner
...Here is a book that gives smart shopping the respect it deserves....Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping is a testament to the nobility, the courage...of the average shopper....In the end, we learn, there's more to the retail experience than trading money for goods.
The New York Times Book Review
Todd Pruzan

By the fourth chapter of Paco Underhill's engrossing new study of our shopping behavior, Why We Buy, you'll have noticed that the author is something of a semiotics master, and probably a bit off his nut. Underhill describes a "eureka moment" that occurred on a sultry August night as he listened to a Yanks game while screening hours of silent, grainy videotape from a drugstore's wall-mounted camera: "I was...witnessing a shopper trying to juggle several small bottles and boxes without dropping one. That's when it dawned on me: The poor guy needed a basket."

Underhill's taste for shopping porn comes in handy at Envirosell, his Manhattan retail-design consultancy, where he's spent more than 20 years interviewing customers (and scrutinizing them from behind potted plants) in order to teach stores, both real and virtual, how to be nicer to us so we'll buy more, and with more pleasure. And his first book -- probably the first book -- on the sociology and psychology of shopping comes as a revelation. Underhill does for the American store what Jane Jacobs did for the American city: He tells us not how retail spaces manipulate us so much as how they fail and succeed at stimulating us.

Why We Buy divulges more about your behavior than you may know yourself: How you ignore items shoved onto the bottom shelf. How you like touching the merchandise, whether it's paperbacks or underwear. How you vacate a store after getting bumped in a narrow aisle (the "butt-brush" factor). But if you think you'll feel silly upon learning that Underhill may have trained a camera on your consumerist ass as you tried to cram it into a pair of Gap khakis, take heart: It's the retailers and product marketers who really look ridiculous. For his research usually yields deceptively simple results -- the kind of thing that should make store planners clap their palms to their foreheads -- and Why We Buy documents their sins with gleeful astonishment. There's the maternity store with aisles too small to handle baby strollers, so its stock doesn't sell. There's the supermarket that shelves its kiddie popcorn at adult-eye level, so it doesn't sell. There's the pound-foolish mattress outlet displaying a $2,000 model without sheets or pillows, so customers can't test-drive it...and it doesn't sell.

Underhill has an inquisitive worldview and a winning voice that reinforces his irrefutable logic. For a book categorized as "psychology/business," Why We Buy is surprisingly well written, even weaving in wry cinema verite: "Stand over here. Behind the underwear. What do you see? A couple?...Hold on -- what's he saying?" The author treads thin ice just once, when he complains that entertainment media "do a fairly poor job of creating packages with the merchandising function in mind." But books and CDs have more emotional value than vacuum cleaners or Big Macs; yes, covers are hard to read from across the store, but we keep these "packages" forever. (Such disappointing logic seems to inform the book's drab but easy-to-read jacket design. Would we really enjoy shopping more if all books looked this dull?)

Still, Why We Buy is immensely valuable for its numerous lessons, which seem obvious only once we understand what we want out of shopping. It's great that someone has explained our habits to us. Now, if only the stores would pay more attention.
&151; Salon

Dan Rather
Meet a man who probably knows more than you do about the urge to splurge.
CBS News’s 48 Hours
Library Journal
The title for this treatment of marketing research in the retail setting is misleading. Underhill, founder of the behavioral research company Envirosell, summarizes some of the firm's conclusions about the interaction between consumers and products and consumers and commercial spaces. He lays claim to the research techniques of urban anthropology, but his casual, self-congratulatory tone and loose organization make the book inappropriate for academic use. Underhill breezes through anecdotes about how observing the mundane details of shopping improves retail sales, but there is limited grounding in the framework of his "science." Given the lack of recent titles on the topic, this is recommended for large collections with an emphasis on retailing.
— Paula Dempsey, DePaul University Library, Chicago
Green
Why We Buy is useful as a how-to for retailers, but shoppers will discover a Vance Packard for our times, on the trail of our century's hidden persuaders.
Business Week
Fortune
...[S]crupulously maps the familiar realm of retail...
Patricia T. O'Conner
...[H]ere is a book that gives [smart shopping] the respect it deserves....Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping is a testament to the nobility, the courage...of the average shopper....In the end, we learn, there's more to the retail experience than trading money for goods.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Shopping is one of the defining qualities of modern civilization, but this author convincingly argues that consumers may have a greater impact on the act of shopping than shopping has on them. Just as social scientists study people in natural conditions, Underhill studies consumers in retail environments. He's no academic, however, but a "real-world" consultant with such clients as McDonald's, General Mills, and the US Postal Service. Although Underhill's work involves a certain amount of intuition and creative thinking, it's primarily based on hard evidence: the measurements accumulated by teams of trackers working on the floors and behind the scenes of retail establishments. Details gathered from observation of consumers pinpoint problems with products, shelving, signage, register lines, and other factors. Such monitoring prompted one of the author's key insights—that any space in which people are likely to be jostled from behind can lead to shopper discomfort (dubbed "butt sensitivity"). The solution: wider aisles. Underhill explores both similarities and differentiating features in the shopping experiences of varied groups, including the distinctive ways in which men and women browse and make purchasing decisions. His dissection of the retail industry finds much to criticize, but the book also dignifies shopping as a central focus of human activity. The author's company, whose work is cited throughout, has earned its way by spotting flaws and advising retail owners on how to fix them, not merely to boost profits, but because the profits come from improving the quality of the shopping experience for customers. Underhill also analyzes the emerging arena of onlineshopping, offering tips for improved performance. Sales here will accelerate, the author believes, but they don't fundamentally threaten the future of old-fashioned human sales interactions. A strong portrait of consumers as the most efficient arbiters of what to sell and how to sell it. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684849140
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/2/2000
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill is the founder and CEO of Envirosell, Inc. His clients include Microsoft, McDonald's, adidas, and Estee Lauder. He is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


A Science Is Born


Comfortable shoes, the American commercial camouflage uniform — khaki pants, olive polo shirt, no aftershave and good, thick, dun-colored socks.

Okay, stroll, stroll, stroll...stop.

Get out the clipboard and pen.

Shhh. Stay behind that potted palm. This is the first track of the day.

The subject of study is the fortyish woman in the tan trench coat and blue skirt. She's in the bath section. She's touching towels. Mark this down — she's petted one, two, three, four of them so far. She just checked the price tag on one. Mark that down, too. Careful, her head's coming up — blend into the aisle. She's picking up two towels from the tabletop display and is leaving the section with them. Get the time. Now, tail her into the aisle and on to her next stop.

It's another day of fieldwork; the laboratory, another troubled department store. The focus of our analysis is the domestic department as per the science of shopping. But let's start by addressing a fundamental question: Since when does such a scholarly discipline even exist?

Well, if, say, anthropology had devoted a branch to the study of modern shoppers in situ, a fancy Latin way of saying shoppers out shopping, interacting with retail environments (not only stores, but also banks and restaurants), including but not limited to every rack, shelf, counter and table display of merchandise, every sign, banner, brochure, directional aid and computerized interactive informational fixture, the entrances and exits, the windows and walls, the elevators and escalators and stairs and ramps, thecashier lines and teller lines and counter lines and restroom lines, and every inch of every aisle — in short, every nook and cranny from the farthest reach of the parking lot to the deepest penetration of the store itself — that would be the start of the science of shopping. And if anthropology had already been studying all that...and not simply studying the store, but what, exactly human beings do in it, where they go and don't go, and by what path they go there; what they see and fail to see, or read and decline to read; and how they deal with the objects they come upon, how they shop, you might say — the precise anatomical mechanics and behavioral psychology of how they pull a sweater from a rack to examine it, or read a box of heartburn pills or a fast-food restaurant menu, or deploy a shopping basket, or react to the sight of a line at the ATMs...again, as I say, if anthropology had been paying attention, and not just paying attention but then collating, digesting, tabulating and cross-referencing every little bit of data, from the extremely broad (How many people enter this store on a typical Saturday morning broken down by age, sex and size of shopper group?) to the extremely narrow (Do more male supermarket shoppers under thirty-five who read the nutritional information on the side panel of a cereal box actually buy the cereal compared to those who just look at the picture on the front?), well, then we wouldn't have had to try to invent the science of shopping.

But anthropology didn't pay attention to those details, and so down the hall from my office is a room containing around fifty cameras, mostly video but with some still and digital cameras and a couple of old-fashioned Super 8 time-lapse film cameras thrown in. Next to them are piled cases of blank 8mm videotapes, two hours per tape, five hundred tapes to a case. We go through about fourteen cases, seven thousand tapes, a year. (In 1992, when we shot a lot of time-lapse Super 8 film — about $60,000 worth — Kodak told us we were the single largest consumer of Super 8 film in the world.) We also have maybe a dozen handheld computers on which we take down the answers from the thousands of shopper interviews we conduct, and there are some odd laptops in there, too, plus all manner of tripods, mounts, lenses and other camera accessories, including lots of duct tape. Oh, and hardshell cases for everything, because it all travels. A lot. We have enough gear in that room to equip a major university's school of social anthropology or experimental psychology, assuming the university has a deserved reputation for generating tons of original research gathered all over the globe.

Despite all that high-tech equipment, though, our most important research tool is a low-tech piece of paper we call the track sheet, in the hands of the individuals we call trackers. Trackers are the field researchers of the science of shopping, the scholars of shopping, or, more precisely, of shoppers. Essentially, trackers stealthily make their way through stores following shoppers and noting everything they do. Usually, a tracker begins by loitering inconspicuously near a store's entrance, waiting for a shopper to enter, at which point the "track" starts. The tracker will stick with the unsuspecting individual (or individuals) as long as the shopper is in the store (excluding trips to the dressing room or the restroom) and will record on the track sheet virtually everything he or she does. Sometimes, when the store is large, trackers work in teams in order to be less intrusive.

Befitting a science that has grown up in the real world, meaning far from the ivory towers of academia, our trackers are not an taken from the usual researcher mold. In the beginning we hired graduate environmental psychology students, but we found they were sometimes unsuited to the work and tended to come to the job burdened with textbook theories they wanted to apply. As a result, they often didn't possess the patience necessary to simply watch what shoppers do. The other problem we had with grad students involved stamina: While we don't work in the dusty heat of Mesopotamia, twelve hours on your feet under the fluorescent lights at Kmart is no picnic either. Fieldwork in any physical or social science is difficult. We found that, for our purposes, smart, creative people — artists, actors, writers, a puppeteer — often have what it takes. Beyond the fact that they have no theories to uphold or demolish, their professional skills are often rooted in their ability to observe. Also, it does not hurt that they have flexible schedules, so that when that Brazilian brewer or Australian tampon manufacturer or American fast-food operator happens to call, they have the open calendar and curiosity to be willing to go take a look.

When we find someone we think has the temperament and the intelligence for this work, we first put him or her through a training session. There's a lot to learn -- how do I watch and simultaneously take notes, for instance, or how can I tell whether someone is reading a sign or just staring at the mirror next to it? We have to teach the most important tracker skill of all: How do I stand close enough to study someone without being noticed? It's crucial to our work that shoppers don't realize they're being observed. There's no other way to be sure that we're seeing natural behavior. Fact is, we're all still surprised by how close you can stand to someone in a store and still remain invisible. We find that positioning yourself behind the shopper is a bad idea — we all know the sensation that we're being watched. But if you stand to the side of a shopper, his or her peripheral vision "reads" you as just another customer — harmless, in other words, and barely worth noticing. From that position you can get close enough to see exactly what a shopper is doing. You can be sure that he's touched, say, nine golf gloves, not eight or ten. Then we throw the tracker hopefuls out into the real world, in a store setting, to see them in action. Most of them wash out at this point — you can teach technique, but not the intelligence or the slight case of fascination required to do this work well. Over half of our core group of thirty U.S. trackers have been with us for more than five years, some for a decade or more. It's hard work, but addictive, too. in teams of three to ten people, led by a member of our staff, they crisscross the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, South America and Australia, visiting every kind of retail business imaginable, from banks to fast-food restaurants to high-fashion boutiques to hangar-size discounters and everything in between. To make our international work easier and more efficient, for three years we have had research teams based out of Milan, Italy, and for two years out of Sydney, Australia.

In addition to measuring and counting every significant motion of a shopping trip, the trackers must also contribute incisive field notes describing the nuances of customer behavior, making intelligent inferences based on what they've observed. These notes add up to yet another, this time anecdotal, layer of information about a given environment and how people use it.

The forms our trackers use have evolved over the two decades we've been doing this research. They are the key to the entire enterprise, an achievement in the art of information storage and retrieval, nondigital division. Our earliest track sheets could record maybe ten different variables of shopper behavior. Today we're up to around forty. The form is reinvented for every research project we undertake, but typically it starts with a detailed map depicting the premises we're about to study, whether it's a store, a bank branch, a parking lot (for a drive-thru project) or just a single section or even just one aisle of a store. The map shows every doorway and aisle, every display, every shelf and rack and table and counter. Also on the form is space for information about the shopper (sex, race, estimates of age, description of attire) and what he or she does in the store. Using the system of shorthand notation, a combination of symbols, letters and hash marks, a tracker can record, for instance, that a bald, bearded man in a red sweater and blue jeans entered a department store on a Saturday at 11:07 a.m., walked directly to a first-floor display of wallets, picked up or otherwise touched a total of twelve of them, checked the price tag on four, then chose one, moved at 11:16 to a nearby tie rack, stroked seven ties, read the contents tags on all seven, read the price on two, then bought none and went directly to the cashier to pay. Oh, wait, he paused for a moment at a mannequin and examined the price tag on the jacket it wore. We'd mark that down, too, just as we'd note that he entered the cashier line at 11:23 as the third person in line, waited two minutes and fifty-one seconds to get to the register, paid with a credit card and exited the store at 11:30. Depending on the size of the store and the length of the typical shopper's stay, a tracker can study up to fifty shoppers a day. Usually we'll have several trackers at a site, and a single project may involve the simultaneous study of three or four locations in separate cities over a series of different weekends.

By the end of a job, an incredible amount of information has been crammed onto those sheets. They come back to the office where the job captain spends a day "cleaning" the forms — making sure that each hash mark is visible and that every box that should be filled out has been. Then our data department spends another day or so entering all the information, every single notation on every track sheet, into a data base.

Over the years we've spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless frustrating hours with computer programmers, trying to come up with a data base system that could handle the kind of work we do. The big problem is that while we crunch the same numbers in the same ways from job to job, each project usually requires us to do something a little differently — to collect different kinds of data, or to devise new comparisons of facts we've uncovered. We've hired fancy consultants who've spent six months at a crack with us, trying to build us a computer system. They ask us to list everything we want our program to do, but every week we add six new things to the list that negate all their work from the previous month. And, of course, our turnaround time must be swift, so there's no time to change the system completely for each job — we may need to do one new comparison for a project today and then not have to perform that function again for seven months.

Until recently, most of our work was done in Microsoft Excel. Excel is not a data base program but a spreadsheet program, intended to help accountants do relatively simple flat calculations. Excel's beauty is its open architecture — you can get in there under the hood and tinker, and soup it up. And that's exactly what we've done. It's as though Microsoft built a very nice bicycle ten years ago and we've turned it into a databusting all-terrain vehicle. Today we run much of our work in FileMaker and SPSS, but still vet it in Excel.

When the videotapes come back from the sites, it's someone else's job to screen every foot. Depending on the size of the store, we may have ten cameras running eight hours a day trained on specific areas — a doorway, for example, or a particular shelf of products. We videotape around twenty thousand hours' worth of store time annually. The video produces even more hard data; if, for example, a study is meant to determine in part how a particular cash register design affects worker fatigue, we may use the video and a stopwatch to time how long it takes for a clerk to ring up a sale at 10 a.m. compared to 4 p.m.

The list of particulars we're capable of studying — what we call the deliverables — grows with every new project we take on. At last count, we've measured dose to nine hundred different aspects of shopper-store interaction. As a result of all that, we know quite a few facts about how human beings behave in stores. We can tell you how many males who take jeans into the fitting room will buy them compared to how many females will (65 percent to 25 percent). We can tell you how many people in a corporate cafeteria read the nutritional information on a bag of corn chips before buying (18 percent) compared to those lunching at a local sandwich shop (2 percent). Or how many browsers buy computers on a Saturday before noon (4 percent) as opposed to after 5 p.m. (21 percent). Or how many shoppers in a mall housewares store use shopping baskets (8 percent), and how many of those who take baskets actually buy something (75 percent) compared to those who buy without using baskets (34 percent). And then, of course, we draw on all we've learned in the past to suggest ways of increasing the number of shoppers who take baskets, for the science of shopping is, if it is anything, a highly practical discipline concerned with using research, comparison and analysis to make stores and products more amenable to shoppers.


Because this science has been invented as we have gone along, it's a living, breathing field of study. We never quite know what we'll find until we find it, and even then we sometimes have to stop to figure out what it is we've seen.

For example, we discovered a phenomenon known as the butt-brush effect almost accidentally. As part of an early study for Bloomingdale's in New York City, we trained a camera on one of the main ground-floor entrances, and the lens just happened to also take in a rack of neckties positioned near the entrance, on a main aisle. While reviewing the tape to study how shoppers negotiated the doorway during busy times, we began to notice something weird about the tie rack. Shoppers would approach it, stop and shop until they were bumped once or twice by people heading into or out of the store. After a few such jostles, most of the shoppers would move out of the way, abandoning their search for neckwear. We watched this over and over until it seemed clear that shoppers — women especially, though it was also true of men to a lesser extent — don't like being brushed or touched from behind. They'll even move away from merchandise they're interested in to avoid it. When we checked with our client, we learned that sales from that tie rack were lower than they expected from a fixture located on a main thoroughfare. The butt-brush factor, we surmised, was why that rack was an underperformer.

As I was delivering our findings to the store's president, he jumped up from the conference table, grabbed a phone, called down to the floor of the store and had someone move that tie rack immediately to a spot just off the main aisle. A few weeks later the head of store planning called me to say that sales from the rack had gone up quickly and substantially. Since that day we've found countless similar situations in which shoppers have been spooked by too-close quarters. In every case, a quick adjustment was all that was needed.

Another such "accident" of patient observation and analysis happened during a supermarket study we performed for a dog food manufacturer. When we staked out the pet aisle, we noticed that while adults bought the dog food, the dog treats -- liver-flavored biscuits and such — were often being picked out by children or senior citizens. We realized that for the elderly, pets are like children, creatures to be spoiled. And while feeding Fido may not be any child's favorite chore, filling him up with doggie cookies can be loads of fun. Parents indulged their little ones' pleas for treats here just as they did over in the cookie aisle.

Because no one had ever noticed who exactly was buying (or lobbying for the purchase of) pet treats, they were typically stocked near the top of the supermarket shelves. As a result, our cameras caught children climbing the shelving to reach the treats. We witnessed one elderly woman using a box of aluminum foil to knock down her brand of dog biscuits. Move the treats to where kids and little old ladies can reach them, we advised the client. The client did so, and sales went up overnight.

Even the plainest truths can get lost in all the details of planning and stocking a store. A phrase I find myself using over and over with clients is this: The obvious isn't always apparent.

While studying the cosmetics section of a drugstore chain, we watched a woman in her sixties approach a wall rack, study it carefully and then kneel before it so she could find the one item she needed — concealer cream, which, because of its lack of glamour, was kept at the very bottom of the display. Similarly, in a department store we watched an overweight man try to find his size of underwear at a large aisle display — and saw him stoop dangerously low to reach it, down near the floor. In both cases, logic should have dictated that the displays be tailored to the shoppers who use them, not to the designers who made them. Move the concealer up, we advised, and put something aimed at teen shoppers down near the floor — the teens will find their products wherever they're stocked.

In some studies, we synthesize every bit of information we can possibly collect into a comprehensive portrait of a store or a single department. A major jeans manufacturer wanted to know how its product was sold in department stores, so in one weekend we descended on four sites, two in New England and two in Southern California. Each department was similar — the jeans section was a square area that held from eight to twelve tabletop displays and some wall shelving. We started by drawing a detailed map of each, showing the displays and the aisles leading into and out of the sections, but also where any signs or other promotional materials were posted. During that weekend we tracked a total of 815 shoppers and observed many more on camera, both video and time-lapse. We paid particular attention to the "doorways" — our term for any path leading into or out of an area of a store. Until the client knew which paths were most popular, it was impossible to make informed decisions about where to stock what, or where to place the merchandising materials meant to lure shoppers.

By the time our study was completed, we could say which percentage of customers used which paths into each of the sections. Once we knew that, it was clear, for instance, that much of the signage was misplaced — common sense dictated that it be positioned to face the main entrance of the store, but we found that most jeans shoppers came upon the section from a completely different direction. Even the client's big neon logo and a monitor showing rock videos were facing the wrong way if their job was to signal the greatest number of shoppers. We tracked shoppers from table to table, seeing where they stopped, what signs they read, whether they noticed the video monitors, and how they handled the merchandise, including whether they took anything to the dressing rooms. If they seemed to be showing jeans to a companion, we noted that, too. Some of the shoppers captured on video were also questioned by our interviewers, so that their demographic information and their attitudes and opinions could be correlated with their behaviors — to see, for example, whether young shoppers with high school educations who say they depend on name brand when choosing jeans read price tags. After the research is done and the numbers are crunched and analyzed, we see what sense can be made of what we've learned. For example, if we were to find that a high percentage of male shoppers buy from the first rack of jeans they encounter, and that shoppers tend to enter the section through the aisle leading from men's accessories rather than from the women's side of the store or from the escalator, then we would advise our client to ask for the display table nearest men's accessories. Or maybe there's another determining factor — maybe men who are accompanied by females and entering the section from the women's department buy more jeans than men who are alone. in that case, the best table would be nearest the women's merchandise. But no one knows for sure until we collect the data.

In other instances we're hired to study some small retail interaction in great detail. One such project was commissioned by a premium shampoo maker that wanted to know about the decision-making process of women shoppers who buy generic or store-brand beauty products. The client was interested in the "value equation" women bring to each shopping experience — how does the shopper who buys from the generics section at the supermarket in the morning and then from Nordstrom in the afternoon decide which product she'll buy where? Does she judge that her skin deserves the premium brand but her hair can settle for the generic? Once upon a time only the budget-conscious bought store brands, but now you find them in everyone's shopping basket. Let's call her shopper number 24, a thirtysomething woman in yellow pants and white sweater, accompanied by a preschool girl, who enters the health and beauty aisle of a supermarket at 10:37 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She has a handbasket, not a shopping cart, and has already selected store-brand vitamin C capsules, a large container of Johnson's Baby Powder and a packet of snapshots she picked up at the photo-processing booth. She is also holding a shopping list and the store circular. She goes directly to the shampoo shelves and picks up a bottle of Pantene brand, reads the front label, then picks up a bottle of the store brand and reads the front label, then reads the price tag on the Pantene, then reads the price on the store brand, and then puts the store brand in her basket and exits the section forty-nine seconds after she entered it. In that brief encounter, there was lots of data to collect — what she touched, what she read and in what order, about twenty-five different data points in all. If, in one day, we track a hundred shoppers in that store's health and beauty aisle, it can amount to 2,500 separate data entries. As the woman exits the section, we interview her, asking twenty questions in all. So each of the twenty-five data points has to be cross-tabulated with each of her twenty answers — a cross-tab challenge, take it from me.

No university, to my knowledge, has ever attempted behavioral research in the retail environment to the degree that we have. My old colleagues in the world of academia regard what we do with envy and horror — envy because we get to do what we do and get paid for it, horror because we actually stick our necks out and are held accountable for the success or failure of our suggestions. After almost twenty years of work, our client list is as blue-chip as they come, and while we do get it wrong sometimes, three-quarters of our clients who buy us once come back for more.

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Table of Contents

1 A Science Is Born 11
2 What Retailers Don't Know 34
3 The Twilight Zone 45
4 You Need Hands 52
5 How to Read a Sign 60
6 Shoppers Move Like People 75
7 Dynamic 86
8 Shop Like a Man 98
9 What Women Want 112
10 If You Can Read This You're Too Young 129
11 Kids 141
12 The Sensual Shopper 161
13 The Big Three 183
14 Time, Real and Perceived 189
15 Cash/Wrap Blues 195
16 Magic Acts 200
17 In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Shop 212
18 The Self-Exam 224
19 Final Thoughts 238
Acknowledgments 245
Index 249
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First Chapter

Chapter One: A Science Is Born

Comfortable shoes, the American commercial camouflage uniform — khaki pants, olive polo shirt, no aftershave and good, thick, dun-colored socks.

Okay, stroll, stroll, stroll...stop.

Get out the clipboard and pen.

Shhh. Stay behind that potted palm. This is the first track of the day.

The subject of study is the fortyish woman in the tan trench coat and blue skirt. She's in the bath section. She's touching towels. Mark this down — she's petted one, two, three, four of them so far. She just checked the price tag on one. Mark that down, too. Careful, her head's coming up — blend into the aisle. She's picking up two towels from the tabletop display and is leaving the section with them. Get the time. Now, tail her into the aisle and on to her next stop.

It's another day of fieldwork; the laboratory, another troubled department store. The focus of our analysis is the domestic department as per the science of shopping. But let's start by addressing a fundamental question: Since when does such a scholarly discipline even exist?

Well, if, say, anthropology had devoted a branch to the study of modern shoppers in situ, a fancy Latin way of saying shoppers out shopping, interacting with retail environments (not only stores, but also banks and restaurants), including but not limited to every rack, shelf, counter and table display of merchandise, every sign, banner, brochure, directional aid and computerized interactive informational fixture, the entrances and exits, the windows and walls, the elevators and escalators and stairs and ramps, the cashier lines and teller lines and counter lines and restroom lines, and every inchof blank 8mm videotapes, two hours per tape, five hundred tapes to a case. We go through about fourteen cases, seven thousand tapes, a year. (In 1992, when we shot a lot of time-lapse Super 8 film — about $60,000 worth — Kodak told us we were the single largest consumer of Super 8 film in the world.) We also have maybe a dozen handheld computers on which we take down the answers from the thousands of shopper interviews we conduct, and there are some odd laptops in there, too, plus all manner of tripods, mounts, lenses and other camera accessories, including lots of duct tape. Oh, and hardshell cases for everything, because it all travels. A lot. We have enough gear in that room to equip a major university's school of social anthropology or experimental psychology, assuming the university has a deserved reputation for generating tons of original research gathered all over the globe.

Despite all that high-tech equipment, though, our most important research tool is a low-tech piece of paper we call the track sheet, in the hands of the individuals we call trackers. Trackers are the field researchers of the science of shopping, the scholars of shopping, or, more precisely, of shoppers. Essentially, trackers stealthily make their way through stores following shoppers and noting everything they do. Usually, a tracker begins by loitering inconspicuously near a store's entrance, waiting for a shopper to enter, at which point the "track" starts. The tracker will stick with the unsuspecting individual (or individuals) as long as the shopper is in the store (excluding trips to the dressing room or the restroom) and will record on the track sheet virtually everything he or she does. Sometimes, when the store is large, trackers work in teams in order to be less intrusive.

Befitting a science that has grown up in the real world, meaning far from the ivory towers of academia, our trackers are not an taken from the usual researcher mold. In the beginning we hired graduate environmental psychology students, but we found they were sometimes unsuited to the work and tended to come to the job burdened with textbook theories they wanted to apply. As a result, they often didn't possess the patience necessary to simply watch what shoppers do. The other problem we had with grad students involved stamina: While we don't work in the dusty heat of Mesopotamia, twelve hours on your feet under the fluorescent lights at Kmart is no picnic either. Fieldwork in any physical or social science is difficult. We found that, for our purposes, smart, creative people — artists, actors, writers, a puppeteer — often have what it takes. Beyond the fact that they have no theories to uphold or demolish, their professional skills are often rooted in their ability to observe. Also, it does not hurt that they have flexible schedules, so that when that Brazilian brewer or Australian tampon manufacturer or American fast-food operator happens to call, they have the open calendar and curiosity to be willing to go take a look.

When we find someone we think has the temperament and the intelligence for this work, we first put him or her through a training session. There's a lot to learn — how do I watch and simultaneously take notes, for instance, or how can I tell whether someone is reading a sign or just staring at the mirror next to it? We have to teach the most important tracker skill of all: How do I stand close enough to stu dy someone without being noticed? It's crucial to our work that shoppers don't realize they're being observed. There's no other way to be sure that we're seeing natural behavior. Fact is, we're all still surprised by how close you can stand to someone in a store and still remain invisible. We find that positioning yourself behind the shopper is a bad idea — we all know the sensation that we're being watched. But if you stand to the side of a shopper, his or her peripheral vision "reads" you as just another customer — harmless, in other words, and barely worth noticing. From that position you can get close enough to see exactly what a shopper is doing. You can be sure that he's touched, say, nine golf gloves, not eight or ten. Then we throw the tracker hopefuls out into the real world, in a store setting, to see them in action. Most of them wash out at this point — you can teach technique, but not the intelligence or the slight case of fascination required to do this work well. Over half of our core group of thirty U.S. trackers have been with us for more than five years, some for a decade or more. It's hard work, but addictive, too. in teams of three to ten people, led by a member of our staff, they crisscross the United States and Canada, as well as Europe, South America and Australia, visiting every kind of retail business imaginable, from banks to fast-food restaurants to high-fashion boutiques to hangar-size discounters and everything in between. To make our international work easier and more efficient, for three years we have had research teams based out of Milan, Italy, and for two years out of Sydney, Australia.

In addition to measuring and counting every significant motion of a shopping trip, the trackers must also contribute incisive field notes describing the nuances of customer behavior, making intelligent inferences based on what they've observed. These notes add up to yet another, this time anecdotal, layer of information about a given environment and how people use it.

The forms our trackers use have evolved over the two decades we've been doing this research. They are the key to the entire enterprise, an achievement in the art of information storage and retrieval, nondigital division. Our earliest track sheets could record maybe ten different variables of shopper behavior. Today we're up to around forty. The form is reinvented for every research project we undertake, but typically it starts with a detailed map depicting the premises we're about to study, whether it's a store, a bank branch, a parking lot (for a drive-thru project) or just a single section or even just one aisle of a store. The map shows every doorway and aisle, every display, every shelf and rack and table and counter. Also on the form is space for information about the shopper (sex, race, estimates of age, description of attire) and what he or she does in the store. Using the system of shorthand notation, a combination of symbols, letters and hash marks, a tracker can record, for instance, that a bald, bearded man in a red sweater and blue jeans entered a department store on a Saturday at 11:07 a.m., walked directly to a first-floor display of wallets, picked up or otherwise touched a total of twelve of them, checked the price tag on four, then chose one, moved at 11:16 to a nearby tie rack, stroked seven ties, read the contents tags on all seven, read the price on two, then bought none and went directly to the cashier to pay. Oh, wait, he paused for a moment at a mannequin and examined the price tag on the jacket it wore. We'd mark that down, too, just as we'd note that he entered the cashier line at 11:23 as the third person in line, waited two minutes and fifty-one seconds to get to the register, paid with a credit card and exited the store at 11:30. Depending on the size of the store and the length of the typical shopper's stay, a tracker can study up to fifty shoppers a day. Usually we'll have several trackers at a site, and a single project may involve the simultaneous study of three or four locations in separate cities over a series of different weekends.

By the end of a job, an incredible amount of information has been crammed onto those sheets. They come back to the office where the job captain spends a day "cleaning" the forms — making sure that each hash mark is visible and that every box that should be filled out has been. Then our data department spends another day or so entering all the information, every single notation on every track sheet, into a data base.

Over the years we've spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless frustrating hours with computer programmers, trying to come up with a data base system that could handle the kind of work we do. The big problem is that while we crunch the same numbers in the same ways from job to job, each project usually requires us to do something a little differently — to collect different kinds of data, or to devise new comparisons of facts we've uncovered. We've hired fancy consultants who've spent six months at a crack with us, trying to build us a computer system. They ask us to list everything we want our program to do, but eve ry week we add six new things to the list that negate all their work from the previous month. And, of course, our turnaround time must be swift, so there's no time to change the system completely for each job — we may need to do one new comparison for a project today and then not have to perform that function again for seven months.

Until recently, most of our work was done in Microsoft Excel. Excel is not a data base program but a spreadsheet program, intended to help accountants do relatively simple flat calculations. Excel's beauty is its open architecture — you can get in there under the hood and tinker, and soup it up. And that's exactly what we've done. It's as though Microsoft built a very nice bicycle ten years ago and we've turned it into a databusting all-terrain vehicle. Today we run much of our work in FileMaker and SPSS, but still vet it in Excel.

When the videotapes come back from the sites, it's someone else's job to screen every foot. Depending on the size of the store, we may have ten cameras running eight hours a day trained on specific areas — a doorway, for example, or a particular shelf of products. We videotape around twenty thousand hours' worth of store time annually. The video produces even more hard data; if, for example, a study is meant to determine in part how a particular cash register design affects worker fatigue, we may use the video and a stopwatch to time how long it takes for a clerk to ring up a sale at 10 a.m. compared to 4 p.m.

The list of particulars we're capable of studying — what we call the deliverables — grows with every new project we take on. At last count, we've measured dose to nine hundred different aspects of shopper-store interaction. As a result of all that, we know quite a few facts about how human beings behave in stores. We can tell you how many males who take jeans into the fitting room will buy them compared to how many females will (65 percent to 25 percent). We can tell you how many people in a corporate cafeteria read the nutritional information on a bag of corn chips before buying (18 percent) compared to those lunching at a local sandwich shop (2 percent). Or how many browsers buy computers on a Saturday before noon (4 percent) as opposed to after 5 p.m. (21 percent). Or how many shoppers in a mall housewares store use shopping baskets (8 percent), and how many of those who take baskets actually buy something (75 percent) compared to those who buy without using baskets (34 percent). And then, of course, we draw on all we've learned in the past to suggest ways of increasing the number of shoppers who take baskets, for the science of shopping is, if it is anything, a highly practical discipline concerned with using research, comparison and analysis to make stores and products more amenable to shoppers.


Because this science has been invented as we have gone along, it's a living, breathing field of study. We never quite know what we'll find until we find it, and even then we sometimes have to stop to figure out what it is we've seen.

For example, we discovered a phenomenon known as the butt-brush effect almost accidentally. As part of an early study for Bloomingdale's in New York City, we trained a camera on one of the main ground-floor entrances, and the lens just happened to also take in a rack of neckties positioned near the entrance, on a main aisle. While reviewing the tape to study how shoppers negotiated the d oorway during busy times, we began to notice something weird about the tie rack. Shoppers would approach it, stop and shop until they were bumped once or twice by people heading into or out of the store. After a few such jostles, most of the shoppers would move out of the way, abandoning their search for neckwear. We watched this over and over until it seemed clear that shoppers — women especially, though it was also true of men to a lesser extent — don't like being brushed or touched from behind. They'll even move away from merchandise they're interested in to avoid it. When we checked with our client, we learned that sales from that tie rack were lower than they expected from a fixture located on a main thoroughfare. The butt-brush factor, we surmised, was why that rack was an underperformer.

As I was delivering our findings to the store's president, he jumped up from the conference table, grabbed a phone, called down to the floor of the store and had someone move that tie rack immediately to a spot just off the main aisle. A few weeks later the head of store planning called me to say that sales from the rack had gone up quickly and substantially. Since that day we've found countless similar situations in which shoppers have been spooked by too-close quarters. In every case, a quick adjustment was all that was needed.

Another such "accident" of patient observation and analysis happened during a supermarket study we performed for a dog food manufacturer. When we staked out the pet aisle, we noticed that while adults bought the dog food, the dog treats — liver-flavored biscuits and such — were often being picked out by children or senior citizens. We realized that for the elderly, pets are < I>like children, creatures to be spoiled. And while feeding Fido may not be any child's favorite chore, filling him up with doggie cookies can be loads of fun. Parents indulged their little ones' pleas for treats here just as they did over in the cookie aisle.

Because no one had ever noticed who exactly was buying (or lobbying for the purchase of) pet treats, they were typically stocked near the top of the supermarket shelves. As a result, our cameras caught children climbing the shelving to reach the treats. We witnessed one elderly woman using a box of aluminum foil to knock down her brand of dog biscuits. Move the treats to where kids and little old ladies can reach them, we advised the client. The client did so, and sales went up overnight.

Even the plainest truths can get lost in all the details of planning and stocking a store. A phrase I find myself using over and over with clients is this: The obvious isn't always apparent.

While studying the cosmetics section of a drugstore chain, we watched a woman in her sixties approach a wall rack, study it carefully and then kneel before it so she could find the one item she needed — concealer cream, which, because of its lack of glamour, was kept at the very bottom of the display. Similarly, in a department store we watched an overweight man try to find his size of underwear at a large aisle display — and saw him stoop dangerously low to reach it, down near the floor. In both cases, logic should have dictated that the displays be tailored to the shoppers who use them, not to the designers who made them. Move the concealer up, we advised, and put something aimed at teen shoppers down near the floor — the teens will find their products wher ever they're stocked.

In some studies, we synthesize every bit of information we can possibly collect into a comprehensive portrait of a store or a single department. A major jeans manufacturer wanted to know how its product was sold in department stores, so in one weekend we descended on four sites, two in New England and two in Southern California. Each department was similar — the jeans section was a square area that held from eight to twelve tabletop displays and some wall shelving. We started by drawing a detailed map of each, showing the displays and the aisles leading into and out of the sections, but also where any signs or other promotional materials were posted. During that weekend we tracked a total of 815 shoppers and observed many more on camera, both video and time-lapse. We paid particular attention to the "doorways" — our term for any path leading into or out of an area of a store. Until the client knew which paths were most popular, it was impossible to make informed decisions about where to stock what, or where to place the merchandising materials meant to lure shoppers.

By the time our study was completed, we could say which percentage of customers used which paths into each of the sections. Once we knew that, it was clear, for instance, that much of the signage was misplaced — common sense dictated that it be positioned to face the main entrance of the store, but we found that most jeans shoppers came upon the section from a completely different direction. Even the client's big neon logo and a monitor showing rock videos were facing the wrong way if their job was to signal the greatest number of shoppers. We tracked shoppers from table to table, seeing where they stopped, what signs they read, whether they noticed the video monitors, and how they handled the merchandise, including whether they took anything to the dressing rooms. If they seemed to be showing jeans to a companion, we noted that, too. Some of the shoppers captured on video were also questioned by our interviewers, so that their demographic information and their attitudes and opinions could be correlated with their behaviors — to see, for example, whether young shoppers with high school educations who say they depend on name brand when choosing jeans read price tags. After the research is done and the numbers are crunched and analyzed, we see what sense can be made of what we've learned. For example, if we were to find that a high percentage of male shoppers buy from the first rack of jeans they encounter, and that shoppers tend to enter the section through the aisle leading from men's accessories rather than from the women's side of the store or from the escalator, then we would advise our client to ask for the display table nearest men's accessories. Or maybe there's another determining factor — maybe men who are accompanied by females and entering the section from the women's department buy more jeans than men who are alone. in that case, the best table would be nearest the women's merchandise. But no one knows for sure until we collect the data.

In other instances we're hired to study some small retail interaction in great detail. One such project was commissioned by a premium shampoo maker that wanted to know about the decision-making process of women shoppers who buy generic or store-brand beauty products. The client was interested in the "value equation" women bring to each shopping experienc e — how does the shopper who buys from the generics section at the supermarket in the morning and then from Nordstrom in the afternoon decide which product she'll buy where? Does she judge that her skin deserves the premium brand but her hair can settle for the generic? Once upon a time only the budget-conscious bought store brands, but now you find them in everyone's shopping basket. Let's call her shopper number 24, a thirtysomething woman in yellow pants and white sweater, accompanied by a preschool girl, who enters the health and beauty aisle of a supermarket at 10:37 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. She has a handbasket, not a shopping cart, and has already selected store-brand vitamin C capsules, a large container of Johnson's Baby Powder and a packet of snapshots she picked up at the photo-processing booth. She is also holding a shopping list and the store circular. She goes directly to the shampoo shelves and picks up a bottle of Pantene brand, reads the front label, then picks up a bottle of the store brand and reads the front label, then reads the price tag on the Pantene, then reads the price on the store brand, and then puts the store brand in her basket and exits the section forty-nine seconds after she entered it. In that brief encounter, there was lots of data to collect — what she touched, what she read and in what order, about twenty-five different data points in all. If, in one day, we track a hundred shoppers in that store's health and beauty aisle, it can amount to 2,500 separate data entries. As the woman exits the section, we interview her, asking twenty questions in all. So each of the twenty-five data points has to be cross-tabulated with each of her twenty answers — a cross-t ab challenge, take it from me.

No university, to my knowledge, has ever attempted behavioral research in the retail environment to the degree that we have. My old colleagues in the world of academia regard what we do with envy and horror — envy because we get to do what we do and get paid for it, horror because we actually stick our necks out and are held accountable for the success or failure of our suggestions. After almost twenty years of work, our client list is as blue-chip as they come, and while we do get it wrong sometimes, three-quarters of our clients who buy us once come back for more.

Copyright © 1998 by Obat, Inc.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2001

    Great reading for every shopper

    This book is impossible to put down once you've started reading it. It is packed with tons of real-life examples and case studies of what retailers do right and what they do wrong. You cannot possibly read this book and not look at the local stores you shop at in the same light again. You will quickly see things they are doing right to encourage you to buy, as well as things they are doing wrong that discourage you from buying, or worse yet, causing you to go to a competitor's store. In reading the book, I immediately thought of several examples where it was obvious that some local retailers did NOT read the book, for they were making some of the mistakes that the book shows discourage sales and frustrates shoppers. I think this book should be required reading for every retail manager and shop owner (and even the hourly employees as well!), many of whom wonder why their sales are not as good as they should be, or why shoppers aren't buying as much as desired. Reading it as a shopper, I was intrigued to learn from some of the examples that some of the local retailers are doing things right (they must have read the book!), and many (unfortunately, too many!) are doing things wrong. I was most amused with the case histories where what seemed to be plain old common sense really did not work to encourage buying, and in fact often had the opposite effect. I also realized that if I was a store manager, I would probably be making many of the mistakes that are pointed out because I did not have the advantage of the in-store research done by the author and his company--until I read the book, of course! Whether you are a careful shopper or a store manager or owner, this book will, when read carefully, change how you look at the shopping environment. But more than that, I found the book immensely fun and interesting to read as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great for people who want to become a Pro Shopper!

    Look I thought i knew a lot about shopping, but wait until you read this book before you declare yourself a pro shopper. This teaches you exactly what the title says. I can guarantee you will learn at least something about shopping or why we buy in this book. Its easy to read and understand as well. Good for anybody!

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  • Posted September 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Highly informative

    A behavioral scientist's view of buying. If you own a retail business this book provides unique insights with actionable ideas. Straightforward to read and understand his observations and recommendations.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2007

    A reality series in a book

    With the word 'science' in the title, my first thought was: boring. My, was I pleasantly surprised! I could not put this book down. Underhill captures the real reality of human behavior in the retail setting. Anyone in the retail industry, e-commerce business, or thinking of starting a business needs to read this book. It's full of principles that are applicable to any business with customers.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2006

    Great Book!

    Paco Underhill's first book drew raves not only from me but from my students who I have assigned the book as a book report. The items discussed in the book are also being used by some multinational companies here in the Philippines as part of their discussion during trade marketing strategic planning. In addition to this the insights of the book surely generated interest for many academic researches done here about the same topic. Great read and a great material.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2001

    Great tools that you can use today!

    A must for anyone in retail, I work in the largest home improvment chain in the US and used some of the ideas and watch the results that worked

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2000

    A Must For Every Retail Manager!!!

    Although I am not a manager, I do work in the retail trade and this book ended up changing the way I viewed my position at work. Suddenly, I realized so many things from a new perspective, like signage and shoppers' habits. I have become a better salesperson thanks to Paco's writings. Every manager should read this...they would find great ideas for their store, guaranteed!!

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