Understanding The Science Of Shopping What makes a shopper spend at one store and not others? Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of Envirosell and author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, explains how he sizes up a shop for its selling potential. Also: why spending may not slow even in a slumping economy.

Understanding The Science Of Shopping

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JOE PALCA, host:

Next up: the holidays are nearly upon us. If you head out shopping for gifts, keep in mind that someone may be watching you. A tracker surreptitiously studying your every move: Customer walked in at 3:26 p.m.; aimed for the men's section on the right; stopped at a bargain bin of weather gloves; touched one, two, three different pairs; picked a pair up; put it back down; picked up another; glanced at the price; held on to it; headed for the sweater table. Well, why are they watching you? To understand how you interact with retail spaces and how that connects you to what you buy and what you don't.

And my next guest started a company nearly 30 years ago to study these behaviors, and he's been all over the world to observe. He's not just thinking about shops; he's pondered how the same concepts could be better applied to museums, train stations, post offices, as I learned from his new book. Let me introduce him. Paco Underhill is the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" and "Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping." He's also founder and CEO of Envirosell in New York, and he joins us in our studios today. Welcome to Science Friday, Mr. Underhill.

Mr. PACO UNDERHILL (Founder and CEO, Envirosell; Author, "Why We Buy," "Call of the Mall"): My father's name was Mister.

PALCA: I see.

Mr. UNDERHILL: My name is Paco.

PALCA: OK, Mr. Paco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Now, the producer of this segment, Christopher Intagliata, met with Paco earlier this week to walk through a Best Buy in Manhattan, starting at the front door.

(Soundbite of city street)

Mr. UNDERHILL: This is what we call a landing strip or a decompression zone, meaning that as I step off the street, I'm adjusting my walking speed, I'm adjusting my peripheral vision, and I'm adjusting to changing light. If the landing strip extends too far, it means that I start to miss some of the messaging, which is clustered here at the doorway to greet me as I walk in.

(Soundbite of busy store)

Mr. UNDERHILL: Wendell is the face of the store. He may be the most important person here, because everyone who walks in looks at him and sees it. And he knows when to say, good morning, sir. He also knows as when to say, what's happening, baby? He's got it all down. He isn't just a security presence, because part of what he's doing is announcing to everybody who's walking in the door that they're welcome.

As we're coming down the escalator, going to basement one, part of what we're looking at here first is, make it a movie night. The overwhelming majority of American expenditure is unplanned, meaning that for every person who walks in here looking for a printer, they're coming down the stairs and seeing, "Dark Knight," maybe I should look at that; that one might be a good Christmas present. And make it a movie night; it's five bucks here. Do you know what it costs to go the movies now, take a family?

We know this is (unintelligible), and look at them, look at them pawing through that stuff. This is what we call a power aisle, meaning that if we think about a store and divide it into super highways, state highways, regional highways, streets and back alleys, this is the super, super highway. Everything that's put in here is palletized, meaning that somebody can actually come drop it on the floor with a forklift truck. You find that in Wal-Mart; you find it here, too. It's - it is also to show you what the nature of the deal is and the fact that they both have the stock, but that stock is limited to what they might have on the floor. That's the idea that they want to get across to you. So, someone goes, 42-inch, class-720 plasma HDTV, and it's under 700 bucks. Maybe I should get one of them for me before it runs out.

If you sit in a store for eight hours, it is very easy to pick up who knows what they're doing and who doesn't know what they're doing. It may be in their body language; it may be whether they put their hands in their pockets; it may be whether they touch it; it may be whether they bring shopping aides into the store; whether they physically move with confidence. One of the things that we look at when we look at a store is, how many people shop at a particular part of the store that seem to be confused?

That guy is.

PALCA: OK. Paco Underhill, so what's wrong with being confused in a store? You've got all this interesting merchandise around you. Pick something where you're at.

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think one of the poignancies, particularly at the consumer-electronic industry, is that for 11 months a year, they are basically servicing the expert and the intermediate customer; whereas at Christmas time, they often have people walking in the door who have never been in a consumer-electronics store yet that year...

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Who are there to buy gifts. And therefore, the confusion ratio, how you deal with them, is a very important part to making that person's shopping experience as pleasant and rewarding as possible.

PALCA: So, is someone confused in shopping - is that a tell-tale sign that they're not going to buy something?

Mr. UNDERHILL: No, it often means that they've walked in the door without the necessary information to process what they're looking for. Often what is most poignant is recognizing they have stepped into the digital-camera section and realized they have no idea even the questions they should be asking.

PALCA: Hm. Now, I wanted to ask you, in that clip of tape when you went out with Christopher, you said that the greeter, this Wendell, was the most important person in the store. How does a greeter - how does that affect someone's willingness to shop and spend?

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think it's - first of all, it is the human face of the particular merchant, and having that human face be as responsive and friendly and welcoming as possible is an important part to set the stage for the customer's experience. Particularly in the consumer-electronics store at Christmas, setting up the idea that, we are here to help you, this is one of the evolutions that we're seeing all across the world of retail. We're taking the traditional role of the security guard and turning them into a concierge.

PALCA: Hm. And the concierge makes you feel special and wanted.

Mr. UNDERHILL: A concierge also fulfills another role, which is they show that there is somebody in charge, and it often takes a measure of anxiety off the table. What it also does is that if you walk in the door with the inclination to shoplift and somebody smiles at you and recognizes you, you are lot less likely to steal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: We're talking with Paco Underhill. He's the expert on the science of shopping. We invite you to join us. Our number is 800-989-825;, that's 800-9898-TALK. I'm Joe Palca, and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. OK, so, I want to establish your credentials for a second here, because it's one thing to say, oh, I've observed all these, but you bring a scientific background to this investigation of people's behavior, and to me it sounds like social psychology, but I gather you're an anthropologist by training.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Actually, I happened to have been, more than 25 years ago, a poor, part-time, adjunct instructor in a doctoral program, one door away from your office here on 42nd street at City University.

PALCA: Oh, we used to know it as CCNY, right?

Mr. UNDERHILL: No, actually, CCNY is something else.

PALCA: Oh. Oh, OK.

Mr. UNDERHILL: That is the undergraduate program. This is the graduate program. I often tell people that I'm a refugee from the world of academia, that after teaching one awful seminar, I decided I felt the same way about teaching as I do about sex, which is that I'd rather practice my profession than talk about practicing my profession.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UNDERHILL: I hope you take that with a grain of salt; it was intended.

PALCA: Yes, yes, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I'm glad you like your profession.

Mr. UNDERHILL: We are a research and consulting firm. I have roughly 160 employees across the world. We are the principal testing agents for prototype stores and bank branches in the world. We also work on the design of airports, train stations, museums. And we're trying to get into the hospital field, because we feel strongly that the same principles that we have used to look at what makes a good store or the information architecture of a train station, we can take into a hospital and make it a better experience there, too.

PALCA: Hm. I'm wondering, though, as you say, the hospitals - would your - your focus is on the financial aspects, and so, your customers are going to be paying you because you're going to increase their profits. That's the idea. But I wonder, in the health setting, whether the idea is to make - if one of the outcome measures is whether people are healthier or have shorter stays in hospitals.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, I think it's the management of people here, meaning that I believe fervently that if you look after the needs of your customer, that has a relationship to your bottom line; and that is true whether you're selling out-patient services, you're selling consumer electronics or you're trying to get somebody on the plane with the least number of headaches.

PALCA: Yeah. But I mean, it is an interesting concept that people - I mean, I'm struck by this hospital notion, because it does seem that the whole process, it needs some help, and I wouldn't have thought of it as a consumer-oriented issue, but clearly...

Mr. UNDERHILL: Absolutely.

PALCA: If the stay in the hospital can be made less unpleasant, even though it's bound to include someone pleasantness...

Mr. UNDERHILL: I mean, think about just the idea of that Best Buy store, dealing with the novice, intermediate and expert user. The hospital deals with same spectrum, people walking in their front door - whether it's a patient, somebody coming to visit a patient, whether it's somebody coming to an out-patient service, or coming to donate some money.

PALCA: Hm. We have a call - a question here from Second Life from Karis Looming(ph), who asks, how many stores use white noise to bamboozle shoppers? White noise, does that have an effect?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Certainly, sound has become a very critical merchandising tool, both to make you more comfortable, but also to tell you often that you don't belong, so that there are those of us, bald, stuttering 56-year-old nerds like me who walk into Abercrombie & Fitch and hear the loud noise and go, I'm not supposed to be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UNDERHILL: One of the critical aspects, if you're a big-box retailer - Target, Wal-Mart, PetSmart, whatever - is recognizing that there is an absolute predictability to who's in the store when. And therefore, there's an appropriate moment to play Frank Sinatra or Death Cab for Cutie.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: That music says we have to take a break and we'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR News in New York, this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about the science of shopping, and my guest is Paco Underhill. He's the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping." He's also founder and CEO of Envirosell here in New York, New York. And we're very interested to have you join the conversation, so give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. And let's go to a call now, and Sam from Goodyear, Arizona, Sam, welcome to Science Friday.

SAM (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

SAM: In your intro piece, there with the greeter - I think it was a Best Buy - with the greeter that was considered by your guest to be a very important part of that store, I have to say that having seen a real growth over the last decade in that sort of greeting at a store that, that has become one of the most annoying features to me of going in an actual bricks-and-mortar store. Now, I don't know if whether or not that's just a bad execution of what is otherwise a good idea or not. But it - sometimes it almost keeps me out, particularly, of Best Buy. Our local Best Buy, I might say, is one of the worst. I had an almost antagonistic relationship with them. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Well, you...

SAM: You know, going in - it's impersonal so often; it's mechanical; it's perfunctory; it's superflu(ph) - well, I can think of all kinds of things to say about it, but not welcoming, really. Anyway, I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks again for taking my call.

PALCA: OK, Sam, interesting, and you've asked the right person, Paco Underhill.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, it certainly, you know, giving good store is looking at the interrelationship between the physical design, the information architecture and the operating culture, that a good greeter at the door also knows when to look you in the eye, wave at you and leave you all alone. One of the critical aspects to service in the context of a 21st-century store is delivering an interjection when the customer wants it. We know, for example, that if a woman walks up to a cosmetics counter in a department store and she is greeted too quickly, that it actually has a negative impact on the possibility of her making a sale. But recognize that from the standpoint of the operator, the greeter at the door way, their job is to acknowledge you, but they are also the cheapest form of anti-theft device available on the planet, and that having an appropriate greeter at the doorway is really important. And I think you've hit on something which is often the case, I'm sad to say, is that sometimes in some stores, the greeting job is a punishment job, meaning that if you've messed up somehow on the floor, you get assigned to the door. And that's a bad management call.

PALCA: Ah. Does this kind of thing work around the world? Are Americans happy to have someone say, hey, how you doing, and if you did that in England, they'd think you are out of your mind?

Mr. UNDERHILL: I think - the nature of the service culture tends to vary somewhat across the globe. Obviously, if you walk into a Selfridges or a Harrods in London, there is somebody there to greet you. If you walk into a Samsung store in Korea, there is someone there to greet you. The question becomes here is, how is that greeter trained? Are they actually the person who simply ushers you in? Or do they, in effect, latch on to you and make you feel as if you're not able to interact with the store on a one-to-one basis?

PALCA: All right. Let's take another call now, and go to Conrad in Des Moines, Iowa. Conrad, welcome to Science Friday.

CONRAD (Caller): Yeah, I'm going to change my question now a little bit.


CONRAD: I want to ask the moderator, what's the idea behind a sale?

PALCA: What's the idea...

CONRAD: Bringing in customer, there's some scientific, psychological...

PALCA: Good question, Conrad. Why do sales work?

CONRAD: (Unintelligible) is having a sale. It's not only to bring in the customer. What is the idea?


Mr. UNDERHILL: One of the ongoing problems, particularly in American retail ,as opposed to other parts of the world, is that American retail is addicted to the concept of the sale. Part of what this has done is to undermine our perception of what something is actually worth. So that if I'm offering a dress September 10th in your local department store and it's 400 bucks, and October 15th, it's 200 bucks, and December 7th, it is 98 bucks, what was that garment worth to start out with? I might point out that in many other parts of the world, you are allowed sales twice a year: You can have a sale after Christmas, and you can have a sale in August, back to school. So that in other parts of the world, that is actually legislated.


Mr. UNDERHILL: Think about that.

PALCA: Wow. I wanted to ask you a little bit about sales in this economic climate. Is a sale is going to be a more effective tool for getting people to buy when people are feeling economically depressed than they would not buy otherwise? Or does the sale work just as well in boom times?

Mr. UNDERHILL: My sense is that just like heroine, a sale is an increasingly less effective tool the more you use it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UNDERHILL: And that one of the problems that we have here is that someone comes in and goes, we have 10 percent off on the 30 percent off that you have today, and somebody looks at the garment and goes - or looks up to you and goes, what does it really cost? That you almost need, whether a calculator or a degree in higher math, to figure out on the floor what is the actual price of it.

PALCA: Right, right. Let's ask - there's another call - question here from Second Life from Tammy Nowotny(ph), who says, how do stores decide when to sell boring, basic stuff and when to push the high-end items?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Tammy, I think that's a very interesting question on December - is it 12th or 13th?

PALCA: Twelfth, yes.


PALCA: We have two weeks to go.

Mr. UNDERHILL: We have two weeks to go. It's also the night of the closest full moon. Did you know that?

PALCA: Yes. I'm glad - they wanted me to do a story about that. I ran out of time. So, now, at least we could let people know.

Mr. UNDERHILL: All right, well, so, we're all destined to be a little crazy today, OK? The question becomes basics or not. Obviously, one of the things that merchants that have to recognize is the economic state that their customers are facing. We know that roughly a third of us now in the United States face the immediate threat of downward mobility; that is the price of our economic travails. For them, their wallets are slammed shut. They are paying for food, shelter, heat and communication and not much else. Those are the basics. The second group in us isn't of - at immediate risk, but there's someone that we know that is - a family member, a friend, a parent. And therefore, we are trying to spend much more carefully. The third group are a group that's paid off their mortgages; they're sitting on a pile. Their pile may not be as big as it was a year ago, but what that group knows is that conspicuous consumption is basically verboten.

In that context, the merchant community has to be able to tiptoe through and be able to present product in a way that's appropriate to all three groups. So, (unintelligible) foods, I'm giving people a value equation. If I'm a Best Buy and I'm selling to group number two, it's the same price you find on Amazon. And if it's the third group, we recognize that many particularly wealthy Americans are doing their discretionary spending away from their home markets. So, they're spending on vacation. And that, again, points to the fact that we have to do a better job of reaching out, because if I'm here in New York, for example, much of the high-end goods that are being bought in a department store are being bought by tourists, and we as a culture don't do a particularly great job recognizing the economic impact of the foreign visitor on our retail economy.

PALCA: Hm. Let's take another call now and go to Bill in Madison, Connecticut. Bill, welcome to Science Friday.

(Soundbite of silence)

PALCA: Are you there? I've had bad luck today with people abandoning me. OK, how about - let's go to Guthrie in Jacksonville, Florida. Guthrie, are you there?

GUTHRIE (Caller): Yeah, I am.

PALCA: Hi, what's your question?

GUTHRIE: Hi. I appreciate you taking my call.

PALCA: Oh, sure.

GUTHRIE: I've been a longtime listener of NPR and Science Friday, of course.

PALCA: Good.

GUTHRIE: And I was going to say, as far as my standards and, you know, expectations of Science Friday goes, I must say, this is probably the most unedifying and unimpressive topic I've heard y'all talk about, the topic of consumerism...

PALCA: Well, I don't mean to - you're certainly entitled to your opinion, but you don't find the fact that human behavior, which is basically what we're talking about, to be an interesting topic?

GUTHRIE: Human behavior in almost every regard, but I mean, I think, there's much more enlightening topics than basically...

PALCA: Well, I...

Mr. UNDERHILL: I - let me...

PALCA: OK. Fair enough. Maybe Paco wants to...

Mr. UNDERHILL: OK. Let me answer that here. I think retail is one of the dipsticks of social change, because the merchant community is the one that has to respond best to the evolution that we're going through as a species. One of the things that we understand, for example, is that if I'm a man over the age of 40, my relationship to shopping is distinctly different than if I'm a man under age 20. Part of what this does is set up the dichotomy in which somebody says, I hate shopping, OK? And you go, you hate shopping because historically, your role wasn't to do it. If you were a man, in the historical context, your relationship to a store was like a hunter in the forest; you wanted to go in, shoot something and drag it out the door.

On the other hand, there are two women that can meet in the local shopping mall, spend the entire day, not buy anything and have a wonderful time. One of the things that we have to face in our larger consumer economy, though, is that we live in a world that's owned by men, designed by men, managed by men, and yet, we expect women to participate in it. And whether I'm talking about the design of a store or a hotel or a train station, those are all poignant problems of our time.

PALCA: Yeah, I found - I mean, in reading the book, I just found many points of contact with the kinds of questions that I - when I was in a graduate school in psychology, that we were dealing with. So, I'm a little surprised by the caller's disappointment, but that's OK, I mean, you know...

Mr. UNDERHILL: Each to his own.

PALCA: Well, I've heard that said. We're talking with Paco Underhill, the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping." I'm Joe Palca, and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's take another call now and go to - how about Wendy in Baltimore, Maryland? Wendy, welcome to the program.

WENDY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

WENDY: And hi, Paco, this is your cousin Wendy.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Well, Wendy, thank you for calling me up on the air.

WENDY: Nice to speak to you again. But I have - I actually have question for you that I've been wanting to ask you for awhile, and that is, every time I go into a Starbucks, I am appalled...

PALCA: A Starbucks? I'm sorry, did you say Starbucks?

WENDY: And I'm wondering if you have a...

PALCA: Yes, go ahead.

WENDY: If - do you think purposely making it almost impossible to get in and get out of there? I mean, it seems I go in and I want one plain coffee; I have to stand in line for people to get their whatever it is fancy stuff they get. And I'm wondering why they don't have a more streamlined system for that. Are they really trying to drive people away?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Wendy, I think one of the poignancies of our times is that all of us walk into the door - whether it's a Starbucks or the local convenient store or a department store - with a clock ticking inside our heads. And that clock ticks at a reasonable degree of loudness, so that if you're walking in at 8:30 in the morning, desperate for that caffeine that you need to get your day kick-started, the extra time that it may take - all - be it - it's 10, 15, 20 seconds - is one in which is excruciating, as opposed to coming in during the middle of the afternoon when you're wanting to use the place as a place to hang out, and that this is actually a break and that coffee is an important part, but it's also an excuse to come in, sit down and whatever.

I think there are a number of issues with the coffee-shop concept. I can remember working with Starbucks when it was a $40 million company back in the 1980s, trying to figure out whether it was a beverage store that sold beans or a bean store that sold beverages, and I think that's still a poignant issue. And we all wish that we sold a legally addicting stimulant. Starbucks has expanded very rapidly. I think the system in principle works, but I think you're absolutely right, Wendy. It could work better. ?

PALCA: Well, we only have a couple of more minutes, and there's a topic I just definitely want to get you to speak about it, and that's the threat or lack that the Internet and Internet commerce poses to bricks-and-mortar stores and shopping. I mean, for awhile, people said that retail is dead, it'll all be Internet-based, and obviously, that hasn't happen. Now they're saying it again. What do you think?

Mr. UNDERHILL: Joe, thanks for serving me up a softball here.

PALCA: There you go. What am I...

Mr. UNDERHILL: OK. Joe, I think the world of shopping is going to change more in the next 10 years than it has in the past hundred; that the way we go to market and the way technology is going to impact it is going to be profound. What we're looking at is what we call the convergence of the bricks-and-mortar world, mobile-phone technology and the Internet. If I can look simply at a supermarket, 80 percent of my purchases at supermarket are routine. After a certain point in our life, we've decided the milk, the yogurt, the orange juice, the tea, the coffee, the whatever, that is part of our regular repertoire. What gives us pleasure is being able to pick out the vegetables, the fruit or cheeses or the something here.

I think what we're going to find is a way in which our consumption process is streamlined and that we have some hybrid version of both the online world and the bricks-and-mortar world. So, I may place my order the night before so that when I go to my local Stop & Shop, it's there ready for me to pick up, and my experience inside the store is shopping only for the things that I like to shop, and I don't have to walk down the laundry aisle and pick out the Tide.

PALCA: Yeah. And I think, again, as I was reading your book, I think there are implications for energy usage, because it's going to change the dynamics of driving. But I'm afraid we've reached the end of the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: So, I have to say we have to stop there. Paco Underhill is the author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" and "Call the Mall: The Geography of Shopping." He's also founder and CEO of Envirosell here in New York City. Thanks for coming in today.

Mr. UNDERHILL: Joe, bake a cake, meet you at the lake. Happy holidays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: Greg Smith composed our theme music. We had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. We had engineering help from Manya here in New York. If you have comments or questions, write to us at Science Friday, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 10036; or you can use that old-fashioned email thing, scifri@npr.org. For NPR News in New York, I'm Joe Palca.

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