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The Science of Shopping


Author: Paco Underhill
Title: Why We Buy
Paperback ISBN: 0684849143
Published: 2000 by Simon & Schuster
Rating: 4.15 / 5.00

Paco Underhill presents a brief summary of his years of work and research into the "Science of Shopping." Underhill is the CEO of Envirosell, a research firm dedicated to studying shoppers in their natural shopping environment. Envirosell is practically pimped throughout the entire book making Why We Buy seem like a marketing tool in and of itself. Only the most basic principles are put forth in the book lest Underhill give away all his company's amassed knowledge for only $15 and a trip to the Bookstore. But most of the basic principles in Underhill's books have already been figured out by the major players in the retail industry (perhaps through working with companies like Envirosell). All this is not to suggest the information in the book is not great, but is to suggest ulterior motives for the book's publication. Why else would the company and all its success be pimped so often throughout the book? Here is a sample passage:

"We worked with [INSERT BIG NAME PLAYER HERE] about slumping sales in [INSERT NEW PROJECT HERE] and we found that [INSERT BRIGHT NEW IDEA BASED ON RESEARCH HERE] would improve the shopping experience. Sure enough sales jumped [INSERT BIG STATISTIC HERE] when [BIG NAME PLAYER] implemented our idea."

I might as well get all the negative out of my system all at once. The book is also dated having been written in 1998. Much of the chapter on Internet Shopping is so far removed from modern reality it is beyond humerous. Underhill also brings an older and upper class bias to many of his observations. Underhill's observations often include suggestions that are unrealistic and make it painfully obvious that Underhill has never actually worked as a Store Manager, let alone as a Store Manager in any of the company's he has worked for as part of Envirosell. Often his observations are on point, but there are logistical and financial hurdles to implementing many of Underhill's ideas. Worse yet, some of his improvements would cost the company more than it would make in returned profit. Increased sales does not always mean increased profit, especially if the investment made to obtain those sales is too great.

Now that I have that out of my system, there is a reason I rated the book a 4.15. The first few chapters are exceptional and should be required reading for any retail manager. The Science of Shopping begins with the physical requirements of shoppers. It may seem basic, but wide enough isles, removing clutter, and position of baskets and carts are super important. I immediately began implementing new ideas in my own store with specific eye to the "Run Way" where customers first land in the store and where they are looking when the land. Also, I have plans to increase the number of shopping bags (instead of baskets) in the store and alter their location to better encourage their use, especially during busy book buying time when customers enter the store planning to buy five textbooks but forget to snag a basket up front by the door. Placement in the back of the store near the textbooks should have been obvious to me but it wasn't. Underhill has a great knack for pointing out the obvious and asking why retailers do certain things. Often times it takes a complete outsider to see the folly in long established operating practices. While Underhill's company certainly needs vast research to support their findings for the larger companies that pay the big bucks, much of the book Why We Buy is almost obvious and the reader has "Ah Ha!" moments without the need for serious evidence. Though Paco Underhill is only too happy to provide real world evidence that led to client success.

This book is a must read for any retail manager. As I read the pages, I could practically see my companies own Marketing and Merchandising higher ups reading the same pages and making changes in company policy only a few short years ago. This book actually comes to my hands from a recommendation in the company's merchandising manual. Much of the information is dated including the Internet section and occasionally the demographics and differences of Men, Women, and Children Shoppers. And the influence of the elderly of the future is WAY overblown (the elderly already ARE the biggest generation with the most money). The book did not foresee the male "Gear, Gizmos, and Gadgets" movement. Women may do a ton of impulse clothing buys but men sit down at a computer for days on end comparing specs on thousand dollar pieces of equipment. Men are building the Home Entertainment Centers and Home Movie Centers. Men want more power and are willing to spend top dollar to get it. Women buy small and buy often, but I feel the book understated the strong male impulse to buy big ticket items along with Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos. Overall, a fantastic read despite the implied marketing of Underhll's company. Even a casual shopper may find much of this book interesting when analyzing their own behavior and own retailers manipulate people to push them into a buying decision, often for items they don't even need.
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