Attention, Shoppers!

Paco Underhill knows what they look at, what they buy and why, so get ready to put a huge dent in the concept of customers' free will.

Paco Underhill is the founder and managing director of Envirosell Inc., a New York City-based research consulting company that studies the interaction between customers and their environment. If Dalai Lama is right that "shopping is the museum of the 20th century," then Underhill is the curator. Part cultural anthropologist and part spy, Underhill has innovated commercial research with his scientific studies of purchasing behaviors. When he talks, everyone interested in consumer spending habits listens. Especially during an economic downturn, when it's ever more critical to persuade customers to spend money despite widespread budget-tightening.

His 150 clients worldwide include retailers such as The Gap and CVS Drug Stores as well as Fortune 500 banks, restaurants and product manufacturers, including Citibank, Coca-Cola, Estée Lauder, Hewlett-Packard and McDonald's. Plus, any business owner can benefit from the ideas Underhill expounds in his bestselling book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster).

Underhill's ideas aren't purely theory; he and his "trackers" have closely watched shoppers (currently 50,000 to 70,000 of them per year) for more than two decades. In addition to discreetly following shoppers around stores, Underhill's staff studies thousands of hours of footage from in-store video cameras for each project. Underhill's research yields conclusions you won't find with traditional consumer focus groups, because when people know they're being studied, they tell researchers what they think the researchers want to know.

"People want something more from the shopping experience than simply an exchange of money and merchandise."

Understanding consumers' shopping habits has become increasingly critical, as the amount of selling space per U.S. shopper has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, the average time per visit a person spends at a shopping mall is down to about an hour, the lowest ever recorded. Purchasers, Underhill has found, spend an average of 11.27 minutes in a store, nonbuyers 2.36. Converting browsers into spenders greatly depends on store design and displays, because 60 to 70 percent of purchases are unplanned.

But that's just at the store level. Consumers are bombarded with thousands of marketing messages daily. How do you get them to respond, especially during troubled economic times? Underhill recently agreed to let us shop his brain for a few of the answers.

How do retailers get people who see the store to come in?
Paco Underhill: Look at all the sightlines. Do a 180-degree tramp around to see the exposures, what someone might see at an angle and a distance. There's a difference in being in a strip mall, in a shopping center or on an urban street.

A store window needs to communicate beyond the people immediately in front of it. Windows should have one message, not 15. They need to change no less than every two weeks to get people coming back. People should look forward to window displays as a place to have fun. MTV has shown us the importance of focusing on icons rather than words, using visual puns and symbols of having a good time.

What are the rules once customers step inside?
Underhill: [Someone] should greet everyone, but don't ask if they need help because that provides an opportunity to say no. In the entrance of any retail environment, you have a decompression zone where the shopper is in transition and not inclined to take in much information. Asking questions is an intrusion at that point.

You also don't want to stack people up there interfering with traffic into the store. This isn't a place for a lot of messaging or browsing. Also think about the zone in terms of exiting customers.

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This article was originally published in the December 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Attention, Shoppers!.

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