Book Review: The Science of Shopping

Book: Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping
Author: Paco Underhill
Reviewed by: Kirsten Lowis

Every now and then, a goodie but oldie takes the cake for my book of the month. I’ve read 6 good books over the past 6 weeks, but it was Paco Underhill’s 1999 vintage “Why we Buy – The Science of Shopping” proved how some basic things don’t change in the world of buying behaviour and consumerism, even amidst a global pandemic!

As an urban geographer turned retail scientist, Underhill has an incredibly witty way of engrossing you into his anecdotes by embodying his skill to engage Me, Myself and I – the all-consumer. I’m so glad I found this little number at the second-hand bookstore on Anne Street last month, because even though it was written back in the olden days (you know…pre-pandemic) Underhill’s observations and theories of gender, corporate and retail behaviour are as relevant today as they ever were. The good and bad news for those who love to shop is that the 24/7 online shopfront has fed the beast within. You see, anthropology, as Underhill puts it, “has been paying attention by collating, digesting, tabulating and cross-referencing every morsel of data”. Enter Big Data.

Just last week, I put my super-shopping skills to the test by getting out in the field playing ‘secret shopper’ at a local business. Imagine me… incognito, mask on, dressed in blue jeans, white-T, comfy shoes, dark sunnies, and playing on my iPhone. Stroll, stroll, stroll…stop. Hmm, that looks good (make a note – get that text while you’re at it). Stroll, stroll…stop, that can be improved (take a pic). Stroll, stroll… oh look, some customers chatting about the price…stroll, tail them, quick…stroll…(make your way closer, listen and take notes). Honestly, what fun! I’m seriously considering changing careers and becoming a mystery shopper! (Jokes) Now, although it wasn’t the first time I’d done a mystery shop report for a client, this time around I was very aware that retail shopping has declined and my project was to help make sense of the customer who was shopping in these stores. Boy did it do more than make sense. The simple act of watching the tactile-deprived shoppers freely experiencing worldly goods firsthand by touching, smelling, listening was profound to me. I’ve been too busy to stop and take notice to see the emotional connection that people have with buying ‘stuff’ and if you’re familiar with Simon Sinek’s ‘WHY’, this started to really make more sense on this stage.

Here are just a few kickers from the book to take away (excuse the pun!):
a) The more time a customer spends in your shop or on your website, the more likely they will spend more – create ambiance with music and colour;
b) Transition time – give the customer time (5-10s) to adjust to the new environment with their 5 senses;
c) The bigger the basket, the more likely customers will buy more (it’s true!)
d) The right side bias – most of us are right-handed and therefore more likely to walk toward the right (I’ll leave that one with you!)
e) Merchandising – be aware of the shoppers “ant trail” in your business
f) Shop like a man – most men hate shopping and would rather be fishing. But if there was a man’s shopping heaven, it would have creaky planks on the floor, spare parts, weird smells of rubber and oil in the air with a calendar featuring “Miss Snap-On Tools” in a tank top with killer cleavage holding power tools. Shopping in more ways than one is quite the opposite for men and women. (you will just HAVE to read this section yourself to get a kick!)
g) What women want – he writes “women are capable of causing tectonic shifts in the world of shopping. Shopping is still (both on and offline) and always will be meant mostly for females. Women want shops. Shopping is female. Women don’t quite get it yet, but when men shop, they are engaging in what is inherently a female activity” (oh stop it! Haha!)
h) Kids – I must say this chapter is out-dated, but some fundamental truths about kids being total suckers for image.
i) Talking – stores that attract volumes of couples, friends or groups of shoppers usually do very well. If you can create an environment that fosters discussion, the merchandise will begin to sell itself.

I’m thrilled to have read this book and combined with my mystery shopping week and reading Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy”, it hit home t. #oldschool

As a first-world customer, I am much older, wiser and more cynical than the days that the book was written, and in my eyes, internet shopping compliments but will never seriously challenge a beautifully merchandised store.  This is a sensational page-turner for the marketer-come-shopper in all of us in a post-pandemic world.

Go get’em!


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