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The Rules...of Retail

The Science of shopping
December 1, 1999

Mall mavens have long believed in the science of shopping, from the preferred places to park to the best direction in which to make the rounds. Paco Underhill, however, has spent thousands of hours studying such mavens and their amateur counterparts to create a close-to-scientific perspective on shopping.

Underhill is a retail anthropologist who gets paid by clients such as Starbucks, the U.S. Postal Service and Gap to study their shoppers. The goal: to understand why customers do--or don't--buy. Through countless hours of video footage, observation and customer interviews, Underhill has put together the new bible of retail sales, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, $25, 800-223-2348).

"One of the things about having a small store is that for all the maxims to work, you often have to be creative about breaking the rules," explains Underhill, who runs his behavioral market research and consulting company, Envirosell Inc., out of New York City. A good example: "You may not be able to fit a good chair on your sales floor, but putting a chair outside might make sense. If you're selling to women, having a place to plant their [husbands or boyfriends] is just good business."

For more of Underhill's retail rules, read on:

Last, but definitely not least, be aware of what your salespeople need to succeed. "Make the transition from sales clerk to cashier to sales clerk again easy," advises Underhill. "Everything a cashier needs to interact with needs to be natural and in front of them, because you want your sales associates' eyes on the sales floor at all times." Instruct your employees by example: "You, as the store owner, need to lead from the front, which means that when business is busiest, you should be there. Your employees are going to watch you for cues as to how you expect them to behave. If you're ill-tempered and curt, they will be, too. If you seem to be enjoying dealing with the public, they will also."