The Science of Shopping

Canadians spend more than $230 billion a year in retail stores, comprising 27.2 per cent of our gross domestic product. A large part of this is impulse buying, by increasingly rushed consumers who have less and less time for shopping. According to Paco Underhill, if all impulse buying were to disappear, the economy would collapse

Underhill studies shoppers for a living. Using video cameras and human trackers, his firm follows them in their natural environment, the store, noting their behavior the way an anthropologist might study an obscure culture.

By observing and recording how they move, and their reaction to different stimuli, he is able to advise retailers on how to design stores and position merchandise, decorations and signage. The goal is to make the shopping experience pleasurable for the consumer and to boost sales for retailers.

In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Underhill shares insights that almost twenty years and hundreds of thousands of hours of videotape and personal observation of the retailing trade have produced.

Retailers traditionally rely on two methods of evaluating shopper behavior. The first is by determining which products are selling. But looking at the sales register tape gives no qualitative information as to why clients are buying or not buying.

For example while videotaping a drug store whose analgesic section was under performing, Underhill's trackers noticed traffic was high but the closure rate - the percentage of shoppers who bought - was below expectations.

After studying the area for three days, a pattern was detected - although traffic was high, much of it was young kids charging down the aisle, past the analgesic section to the soda department, frequently bumping into the aspirin shoppers -often seniors nervously trying to determine the best deal.

Many become perturbed, and broke off their browsing walking away empty handed. Simply moving a few shelves reversed the situation and resulted in a sales increase for the under-performing department.

Another method of analyzing shopper behavior is by querying them about their experience, where they bought, how many alternatives they looked at, how many pairs of pants they tried on etc ... But polling has limitations. People often don't realize their own motivations and behavior. In a study of cigarette merchandizing, shoppers remembered seeing signs for Marlboro even though none existed in that store

Underhill writes that brands are no longer the force they were a generation ago so many purchasing decisions are made in the store. The shopping environment heavily influences this impulse buying and hence the need for effective store design. The author offers several suggestions.

The longer a person spends in a store, the higher their average purchase is likely to be, so much of his advice is geared toward getting shoppers to shop longer. Many bookstores have coffee shops in them, allowing clients to browse publications while comfortably seated - surely prolonging the average visit.

Another strategy is to design stores to maximize the merchandise that shoppers are exposed to. But this can backfire. Sears at Fairview is layed out like a maze, forcing customers to look at many products they would otherwise ignore as they try to find what they are looking for. But with so many twists and turns, once in, it's hard for the shopper to find his way out.

Underhill is unambiguous: Waiting time is the single most important factor in customer satisfaction. "Busy executives hate to wait for anything, but some don't realize that normal people feel the same way."

He often notices shoppers, who have spent long periods in the store, abandoning their carts when confronted by a crowd at the checkout line. He advises against placing the register at the front of the store since clients entering, will often turn around when they see a lineup.

Men and women have different attitudes toward shopping. In one study the author noted 65 per cent of male shoppers who tried on clothing bought it, as opposed to 25 per cent of females shoppers.

When a shopper goes to the changing room he is in buying mode. This is where the sale is "closed," hence, its importance. He recommends making them roomy with large mirrors and a wide variety of lighting options. Including benches so people waiting for friends trying on clothes can relax is also a good idea.

Men are much easier to sell to than women, since they don't enjoy the experience as much and want to get it over with. Almost all women food shop with a list vs. less than a quarter of men. Eighty-six per cent of women look at price tags. The figure is just 72 per cent for men.

According to Underhill for women there are psychological and emotional aspects to shopping that are absent in most men. In practical terms this means they are more demanding of retail environments.

Men want a place where they can find what they need with minimum effort and get out - fast. Women are patient and inquisitive, demanding environments where they can move comfortably, in what sometimes resembles a semi-trance state. They have a lower tolerance to what he calls "butt-brush" and consequently like little corners of stores with less traffic.

Underhill is skeptical of the Internet's effect on the traditional store - only a decade ago catalogs were going to replace physical retailing. Yet, after some initial success, sales peaked at roughly a 10 per cent market share. He believes people still want to feel and touch products they buy. Even if Internet sales someday doubles that of catalogue sales there will still be a huge slice left for the conventional store.


Why we Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill, 255 pp. Simon & Schuster. $37.00

Photo Caption: The longer a person spends in a store, the more they will spend. Indigo Books, Music and Café allows customers to browse magazines while seated in a coffee shop, prolonging the shopping experience.



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