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December 1999


Why They Buy

A researcher discovers surprising – and sometimes strange – consumer habits

The more scientific market researchers lashed out at Paco Underhill; the media scoffed at him. But Underhill, president of Envirosell, a New York City consulting company that founded "the anthropology of shopping," has spent 20 years studying the way shoppers act in stores and compiling information most retailers would kill to know. He probably knows your customer better than you do.

"The obvious isn't always apparent," Underhill writes in his book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. His researchers have watched tapes from hidden cameras and tracked shoppers from the time they walk into stores until they leave, noting how they read signs, approach displays and handle merchandise. Underhill reports his findings to clients, who often are surprised to learn how customers react to their stores. Here, from his book, are some examples of what he found.

The Zone

Once customers walk into a store, they still have to make a mental transition between the outside and the inside. Approaching a customer who's still in this "zone" is ineffective; if you say "May I help you?" he or she probably will say "No thanks." Consumers have the most confidence when they reach the midpoint of a store. That's the time to approach them.

Bumped Off

Women don't like to shop in crowded areas or where they'll be jostled from behind. If they're brushed from behind several times while looking at a display, most will walk away without buying.

Out of Reach

Too often retailers put their merchandise in places that are inconvenient for the people who buy them most often. For example, one grocery store put dog treats on the top shelf, but the customers who usually bought the treats were children or elderly adults. They had to jump or use umbrellas to knock the treats off the shelf. A drug store put concealer cream on the bottom shelf where the older people who bought it had to bend over to pick it up.

Sign Off

Signs are most effective where people wait idly, such as in lines or on escalators. The worst place for signs: hanging from the ceiling – people usually walk too quickly to look up. Every store is a collection of zones, and you should determine what customers are doing in each zone before you decide where to place signs.

Bank on It

Consumers often walk past banks and other serious-looking institutions quickly because most of them are uninteresting to look at. If your store is beside one of these buildings, put mirrors in your windows or on your facade to slow people down – people love to preen.

Toward the Back

If people think there's something interesting going on in the back of the store, that's where they'll head. Consider where to place your cash register and repair counter. At the front, they could stop customers from moving further into the store. In the middle, they could cause lines of customers to cut the store in half.

Mars vs. Venus

Women who shop with men spend an average four minutes and 41 seconds in a store. This compares with eight minutes and 15 seconds when shopping with another woman, seven minutes and 19 seconds with children and five minutes and two seconds shopping alone. Underhill jokingly says stores should have a place to "check husbands."

Biding Time

Customers who have to wait in line are more easily appeased if there's some kind of interaction (even an acknowledgment from the sales clerk that they're waiting). People shopping with companions don't mind the wait as much, so lone shoppers often require more attention. Providing a diversion, such as playing a video or placing an interactive kiosk next to the line, makes waiting less bothersome.

by Stacey King

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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