Oct 4, 2014

Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping - Paco Underhill

The first business book I read more than once, enjoyed and benefited from it.  Find out more after the jump...

Book description

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, Paco Underhill lays bare the struggle among merchants, marketers, and increasingly knowledgeable consumers for control.


This was the first business book I read more than once, enjoyed and benefited from it.  

For over ten years I worked in the book selling industry.  More specifically for a non-profit Christian book chain, you could say I married into it.

Bookselling history

I have always been interested in books and spent a lot of time around book shops and libraries.  My lunch breaks in the city involved me walking down to the bookshop on the high street or visiting the city library.  When I moved to one of Australias major cities to study Theology, I knew the way to many of the larger bookshops there.  So it was only natural that when I moved north I found the local Christian bookshop, there I discovered a lovely young lady, who was also a member of my church, volunteered her time there which made it all the more attractive to visit.  After we married we were presented with two options, move back out to a small 'Outback' mining town to continue on as a pastor there or join the Christian book chain as managers of one of their stores.  We choose the latter.

Previously, I had spent time volunteering at the Christian book shop with my wife, but taking on a full time role required a steep learning curve.  When a family moved over from the USA to help with the 'Mission', They mentioned this book "Why We Buy" and some things they had learnt from reading it.  We all had a laugh at the "butt-brush effect" where shoppers would approach a sales tables and shop until they were bumped once or twice by other people and then moved on abandoning their search for a good deal.  However, after he mentioned this I noticed it happening, so I asked him some more questions and he eventually handed me the book to read.

Read it several times

On the first time through, I found it an easy read and was interested in the 'common sense' it contained and in the way people interacted with the shop environment.  I walked away with some discussion points to go over with my wife but I didn't take it any further.

My second time around was a few years later when sales at the book shop were in decline and all our 'collective wisdom'  (or advise which we shared between the same people at the same shops) wasn't able to break the cycle and increase sales.  I purchased a copy for myself from our supplier and re-read it with desperate eyes.  And I found it of some help.

Some ideas that I remember putting into practice where I did notice results:

Underhill mentions there is a certain way people move "(in retails environments but also everywhere else): They invariably walk toward the right. You don't notice this unless you're looking for it, but it's true–when people enter a store they head rightward. Not a sharp turn, mind you; more like a drift."  He does go on to say that in Australia and Britain it's different because we drive on the left hand side of the road.  So I watched what happened in my shop and also in other stores I visited.  Here in Australia there does seems to be a 'drift' toward the left as people go into a store.  What I also noticed was that it was more a 'drift' away from the counter.  Most people wanted to come in and spend a little time looking without being interupted, so would avoid the counter so that they didn't get 'harassed' by the staff first up.  If they came in specifically wanting help they would make a bee-line to the counter.  And it was always good to have a friendly staff member there to greet them.

Because the counter in my bookshop was to the right when customers entered they would head off to the left, so I placed the best sellers display a little way into the store to the left of the counter.  And it did generate more sales.  (Common sense? Maybe, Helpful? Yes.)

"All shoppers reach right, most of them being right-handed. Imagine standing at a shelf, facing it - it's easiest to grab items to the right of where you stand... So if a store wishes to place something into the hand of a shopper, it should be displayed slightly to the right of where he or she will be standing."

Armed with this piece of common sense I then created a display to the right of our best sellers list.  I created a recommended list, and noticed that books which I (and my staff) had read and loved but didn't move very quickly, were now selling more.  One recommened book by a staff member (Blue Like Jazz) actually went on to our best sellers list because of this, at least I hope so.

Other ideas like, "A chair says you care" (we found space to place a couch), fancy paper bags with handles ("Oh nice, your getting a bit posh aren't you?) and strategically placing hand baskets (hint: not at the door) may not have increased sales but it increased our profile in the community.  We were seen as a place that took care of our customers, and we did see an increase in the conversion rate.  

Each time I re-read this book I can't go into a retail area without having a critical eye out for the placement of signage, stock and all the myriad things Underhill mentions.  It brought to the forefront of my mind how much manipulation actually occurs in some establishments and made me stop and think more about some impulse purchases.

Reevaluated our consumer driven culture

It also made me consider the claims being made by our consumer driven culture,  where you 'create a need and then sell your product to that need'.  Even though I believed in the products that I sold, we became part of that cycle in order to keep our doors open, and the need to increase sales yearly seemed to over take.  

It's good to be reminded of the subtle message of excessive consumerism.  This book allowed me to take a step back and look at it in a different light.  I find myself resonating with what  Joshua Becker writes on his blog becomingminimalist.com
Fulfillment is not on sale at your local department store (or Christian Book Store)—neither is happiness. It never has been. And never will be. We all know this to be true. We all know that more things won’t make us happier. It’s just that we’ve bought into the subtle message of millions upon millions of advertisements that have told us otherwise. Intentionally stepping back for an extended period of time helps us get a broader view of their empty claims.  
Back to the book... to summarise:  It is a quick and easy read that I would recommend to everyone, but especially if you are working in retail.  A lot of reviewers mention that all the ideas Underhill discusses are common sense.  Well yes, once you hear it you think, "of course!", but sometimes the obvious is not always apparent.

Interested in reading more?

Use the below link to get yourself a copy of Why We Buy, and support WolfsBooks at the same time.

Here are two more titles which I found helpful on this subject:

Call of the Mall:
The Geography of Shopping by the Author of Why We Buy
Good to Great:
Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't

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