The Rules...of Retail

The Science of shopping
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the December 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

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:

  • Start outside: "The first thing a store owner should do is simply walk outside and do a 180-degree sweep of the outside of [his or her] store," says Underhill. "The seduction process should start a minimum of 10 paces away." Also, understand where your customers are coming from. "Almost every sidewalk has a dominant direction from which people move; that's critical to understand."
  • Window shopping: Don't forget your windows in your outside critique. "Store windows need to communicate one message positively rather than six messages possibly," advises Underhill. "Make it simple, fun and clever, and change it frequently." If your product doesn't translate well at a distance, get creative. If you're promoting cookbooks at your bookstore, include wooden spoons and brass pots to make your display more dynamic.
  • Entering the zone: Once customers are entranced by your store's exterior, they'll move into your retail portal. Your what? "A doorway isn't a doorway. It's a portal," Underhill explains. "If you own a small store, [you need to] make that front 15 percent of your store as effective as possible. That's where you want somebody to slam on their brakes and realize they're going someplace new." This can be accomplished through a change in lighting, floor color or texture, or by setting up actual barriers.
  • The butt brush and other hazards: For each section of your store, you'll want to establish a Browsing Coefficient. Underhill translates what that means: "How long does somebody have to stand in front of [an item] in order to gain purchase confidence?" When taking this into account, you have to figure in things like Underhill's Butt-Brush theory (customers will move away from a display if the store is so crowded that other customers are brushing against them from behind), because you want them to be able to stand there as long as necessary.
  • The niceties: Don't neglect details that may seem like extras: clean, spacious fitting rooms; comfy chairs for those dragged along on the shopping trip; even the music playing in the background. "Music is a merchandising tool. Have the music reflect the demographics of who's in the store when," advises Underhill. "You may want to change the tenor of the music at least three times a day based on changing demographic groups."

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."

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