Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wednesday Review: Paco Underhill's WHY WE BUY

Just a brief review today, though this one deserves much more.

WHY WE BUY
by Paco Underhill
(Simon & Schuster, 1999)

I heard Paco Underhill speak at Book Expo last year, and my coworkers and I left the room gasping. A professional "shopping scientist," Underhill's insights into how customers actually interact with the bookstore sales floor had the astonishment of something that's been right under your nose all along. We did some serious rethinking of some of our displays and placements after that presentation, and have continued to keep his principles in mind when making changes in the physical bookstore.

But I'm lazy when it comes to reading anything other than fiction, so it took me until this past month when I found myself with a spurt of interest in practical nonfiction to finally pick up Underhill's most famous book. (The ALP had read both, and told me he preferred this one to its sequel, THE CALL OF THE MALL.) And I was utterly enthralled all the way through. As a retailer (especially one continuously designing the ideal bookstore in her head), it was especially relevant -- I turned down dozens of pages and underlined passages for future reference. But it was also fascinating from the perspective of a consumer. So THIS is why stores are set up that way, one thinks, along with, often, Do I really act like that?

Though it's often tempting to argue that MY consumer behavior doesn't follow these rules (i.e. I'm not such a sucker), Underhill's data is pretty undeniable. His company, Envirosell, has spend thousands upon thousands of hours actually observing shoppers in stores, and tabulating their behaviors (from how long they spend reading a sign to which way they turn upon entering a store to whether they pick up a shopping basket) into a complex rubric meant to help retailers work better. Did you know, for example, that most shoppers veer left when entering a store? Or that it takes everyone a few seconds to make the transition from outside to inside, so the first few feet of merchandise are often invisible? Or that the "butt brush effect" means that people (especially women) will not spend time at a table or aisle if they sense people too close behind them? Or that everyone -- everyone -- slows down when they pass a mirror but speeds up when they pass a bank?

These and a hundred dozen other observations are what make this a valuable book for retailers, and a head-shake-of-recognition inducing one for shoppers. And I felt a bit of divided loyalty reading it, especially knowing that Underhill works for some of the biggest corporate giants in the world. Is such analysis exploitative of consumers? Are retailers being encouraged to play psychological games with their customers to get them to spend money for things they don't really need? Is this contributing to our overspending, overconsuming, design-over-content Western society?

Maybe. But not necessarily. I was ultimately won over by Underhill's tireless advocacy for chairs or benches in stores: it's a sign of good faith, he says, and a gift to tired customers that he would replace many feet of selling space for. At best, this kind of analysis and response is about being good to customers -- making it easy on them, offering them the information they need effectively, giving them what they don't even know they want.

After all, books are luxury goods too -- no one "needs" them to survive, so the process of shopping for them is largely influenced by emotions, perceptions, atmosphere, etc. But I don't feel moral qualms about encouraging someone to buy one more, because I believe it's a good investment in terms of their own money and time and the culture at large. That the same principles can be applied to massive chain stores selling overpriced handbags or disposable diapers doesn't mean they don't work for indie bookstores. On the contrary, perhaps we booksellers have a responsibility to use newly discovered and evolving principles of shopping to ensure our own survival and bring customers into places of real value.

All my own internal arguing aside, Underhill's book is worth reading for anyone remotely interested in the retail world. His writing is sprightly and entertaining, and (aside from one chapter on Internet shopping that suffers from being written in 1999, before "Web 2.0", and looks a bit dated and silly now) always relevant. I enjoyed reading the book immensely, and I know that Chapter 18, an in-depth analysis of the customer-friendliness of a bookstore, is one I'll return to again and again when designing my own store.

* * *

I'm off this morning to sell books at the PEN World Voices Festival, a wonderful week of readings and panels by international authors. Check out some of the offerings if you can -- most are free. Enjoy the week -- see you Friday.