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books - business

Why We Buy

Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping by Paco Underhill

I found this book f

ascinatingly enjoyable. The “do good design” part of my conscious struggled at times knowing the negative environmental impact of our over-consumption. Still, great insight into why we buy.

My favourite excerpts…

In 1997, when this volume was originally written, the academic world knew more about the marketplace in Papua New Guinea than what happened at your local supermarket or shopping mall. Twentieth-century anthropology wasn’t about what happened in your backyard.

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To keep track of them, every camera is assigned a name—the video cameras are named after rock stars, the digital stills are signs of the zodiac. We find giving a camera a name rather than a number helps it last longer, and when Jimi Hendrix feels poorly, he gets to the shop faster than if he were camera number 26.

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Then we throw the tracker-hopefuls out into the real world, into a store setting, to see them in action. Most of them wash out at this point—you can teach technique, but not the smarts or the slight case of fascination required to do this work well. It’s weirdly addictive, and many of our trackers have been with us for a decade or more.

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I’d guess that at least one third of the time we go on location, we end up finding something very different than what our client told us we’d find. The store has six aisles and not seven, the shelf layout has been mysteriously reversed or that interactive machine we were hired to study arrived at the store nearly a month ago and hasn’t worked since.

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Even the plainest truths can get lost in all the details of planning and stocking a store. A phrase I find myself using over and over with clients is this: The obvious isn’t always apparent.

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There are surveys that do ask customers for information about what they saw and did inside a store, but the answers are often suspect. Sometimes people just don’t remember every little thing they saw or did in a store—they weren’t shopping with the thought that they’d have to recall it all later. In a fragrance study we performed, some shoppers interviewed said they had given serious consideration to buying brands that the store didn’t carry. In a study of tobacco merchandising in a convenience store, shoppers remembered seeing signs for Marlboro even though no such signs were in that store.

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The average time spent in a hypermarket, or multidepartment store—whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the U.S., a European Carrefour, or a Pick n Pay in Cape Town, South Africa—is about thirty minutes. That’s stopwatch time. But if you ask someone how long he or she spent in a store, that person will often double that number. In any commercial setting, time comes in three forms. There’s real time, there’s perceived time and then there’s a combination of the two.

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The flip side of that measure is what we call the confusion index, or the number of people walking around stores completely at sea. Remember that time is relative, so if the ten minutes you spend at a Target or Wal-Mart is spent walking in circles, it’ll feel like you’ve been in there for a half hour.

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The overarching lesson that we’ve learned from the science of shopping is this: Amenability and profitability are totally and inextricably linked. Take care of the former, in all its guises, and the latter is assured. Build and operate a retail environment that fits the highly particular needs of shoppers and you’ve created a successful store.

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In the five chapters that follow, we’ll see how the most elemental issues—the holding capacity of the human hand, the limits to what a being in motion can read, even the physical needs of the nonshopper—matter in determining the shopping experience. Take that same model and you’ll notice it applies to every physical environment you interact with.

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All of which means that whatever’s in the zone they cross before making that transition is pretty much lost on them. If there’s a display of merchandise, they’re not going to take it in. If there’s a sign, they’ll probably be moving too fast to absorb what it says. If the sales staff hits them with a hearty “Can I help you?” the answer’s going to be “No thanks,” I guarantee it. Put a pile of fliers or a stack of shopping baskets just inside the door: Shoppers will barely see them and will almost never pick them up. Move them ten feet in and the fliers and baskets will disappear. It’s a law of nature—shoppers need a landing strip.

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Throughout our work looking at the lobbies of business hotels, the lack of what we call an “information architecture plan” can have a disastrous effect on customer service. If the concierge or bellhop has to tell people coming into your hotel all day, every day where the bathroom is, well, I don’t care how much training you give people, you try answering the same question five hundred times a week and see if you don’t get cranky, too.

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There’s an interesting curve here: Greet people too early and you scare them away. Talk to them too late and you get a whole lot of frustrated customers. In our work with Estée Lauder’s cosmetic counters, we were able to plot this curve pretty precisely. Leave people alone for at least one minute. Let them play first, and then you go from salesperson to cosmetics coach.

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What can you do with the decompression zone? You can greet customers—not necessarily to steer them anywhere but to say hello, remind them where they are, start the seduction. Security experts say that the easiest way to discourage shoplifting is to make sure staffers acknowledge the presence of every shopper with a simple hello. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s homespun advice to retailers was that if you hire a sweet old lady just to say hello to incoming customers, none of them will dare steal.

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That teaches us something about rules—you have to either follow them or break them with gusto. Just ignoring a rule, or bending it a little, is usually the worst thing you can do.

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The other related fact of newsstand life we noticed was that every customer had one hand already occupied, either with a briefcase or a tote bag or a purse or a lunch. Almost no one goes to work empty-handed nowadays. When you think about it, it’s a rare moment in the modern American’s life when both hands are completely free. Yes, we have backpacks and messenger bags, but those simply allow us to turn ourselves even more into pack animals. Add to the mix a mobile phone, a coffee cup or the occasional ice cream cone, and in most commercial settings, at least half the people you see are moving with only one hand free. I might even venture to say that finding yourself with both hands free is a little disconcerting, as we immediately think we’ve left something behind.

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We suggested that all drugstore employees be trained to offer baskets to any customer seen holding three or more items. My drugstore client gave it a shot. And because people tend to be gracious when someone tries to help, shoppers almost unanimously accepted the baskets. And as basket use rose instantly, so did sales, just like that.

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In other words, I end by saying, showing me a sign in a conference room, while ideal from the graphic designer’s point of view, is the absolute worst way to see if it’s any good. To say whether a sign or any in-store media works or not, there’s only one way to really assess it—in place. On the floor of the store.

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Thinking that every sign must stand on its own and contain an entire message is not only unimaginative, it’s ignorant of how human brains operate.

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At a bank client’s branch we studied there was a standing rack of brochures located in the general vicinity of the teller lines. But it was positioned a little too far away—customers standing behind the ropes could barely read the brochure titles, let alone grab them.

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In the majority of stores throughout the world, sales would instantly be increased by the addition of one chair. I would remove a display if it meant creating space for a chair. I’d rip out a fixture. I’d kill a mannequin. A chair says: We care.

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Stores that sell mainly to women should all be figuring out some way to engage the interest of men. If I owned Chico’s or Victoria’s Secret, I’d have a place where a woman could check her husband like a coat.

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One of the ongoing challenges in contemporary banking is getting older customers to use ATMs. The automated tellers can be intimidating if you’re not already comfortable with interactive touch-screens and machine-speak. Senior citizens can be taught, but it shouldn’t be by youngsters or officious junior VP wannabes; older customers prefer to be instructed by their contemporaries, all our surveys say—one older bank employee stationed by the teller lines can escort multitudes of senior customers to ATMs.

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3. That if the parent’s sustained close attention is required (by, say, a car salesman or a bank loan officer), then someone must first find a way to divert the attention of a restless, bored child.

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We did a study for Wells Fargo a few years ago showing that 15 percent of all those entering its branches are under seven years old. “What’s your most effective selling tool?” I asked a loan officer there. She reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a lollipop. She said it could usually be counted on to buy her two minutes of uninterrupted face time with a parent, all she needed. The bank also offers a coloring book starring a puppy who lives in a Wells Fargo branch. That and a handful of crayons can add up to a brand-new home equity loan, no question. In New York, Citibank produces an activity book for children. In both cases, the banks are buying quiet today and—given how we like to fetishize our happy childhood experiences—loyal customers of tomorrow.

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In study after study, we’ve seen that the single most important factor in determining a shopper’s opinion of the service he or she receives is waiting time. If they think the wait wasn’t too bad, they feel as though they were treated capably and well. If the wait went on too long, they feel as though the service was poor and inept. Quite simply, a short wait enhances the entire shopping experience and a long one poisons it.

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Interaction, human or otherwise: The time a shopper spends waiting after an employee has initiated contact actually goes faster than time spent waiting before that interaction takes place, our studies have shown. Having an employee simply acknowledge that the shopper is waiting—and maybe offer some plausible explanation—automatically relieves time anxiety, especially when it comes early in the wait. I once visited a big chain drugstore where the manager clearly loved customer contact. When the checkout lines got a little too long he’d leave his office and work the front of the store like some combination expediter–standup comic.

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If, during busy times, I had a choice between deploying three cashiers or two cashiers and a line manager, I’d go with the latter. The line manager can serve as a kind of precashier—he or she can gently suggest to shoppers that they have their orders ready or can offer to answer any questions the customers may have, thereby shortening both the perceived and the actual wait.

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A music store or bookstore of the future—couldn’t it be similar? It might resemble the comic-book clubs they have in Japan, where you can go in, rent a chair and read all your favorites. You would pay a small admission fee. In return, someone whose taste you admire and appreciate would serve as the emcee.

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When you arrive in a new place, fold up your old glasses and put on those gafas, megane, occhiali or óculos, I tell you—doors pop open. Windows appear out of nowhere. I’ve seen it happen again and again. Traveling someplace new improves your processing skills. It helps sharpen the old tacks. It reminds you that no matter who you are, you’ll probably end up coping just fine.

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When Blockbuster Mexico asked me to come down and do some consulting work, I said sure, absolutely, but I had one request—that the executive board visit the stores with me over the course of a weekend. But, but, Paco, they replied, we’ve never been in a store on a weekend! We’re out at our country houses! Again, this is an issue I run into over and over—top-level execs busy crunching numbers but never even once bothering to visit the actual floor.

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One of the easiest ways to gauge a store’s morale is to take a look at the amenities and spaces it provides its employees. This doesn’t mean you have to have a paid babysitter or masseuse on staff, but it does require a little care and attention backstage.

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In the Latin market, if someone walks in and can prove they have a home, a job and a mailing address, Elektra will lend that person the money to outfit their lives. In return, the customer agrees to make a small weekly cash payment. That said, the entire family takes responsibility for the loan. In essence, it’s a bank wrapped up in a consumer appliance and department store.

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Does the company charge high interest rates? Absolutely. But Elektra is also enabling social mobility. They’re lending money not to a single person but to an entire household, including extended family. The company’s bad debt ratio? Remarkably tiny. A lot less than for your typical bank. So it’s a win-win for Elektra, for Latin families, and for the entire Latin American standard of living. Genius.

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The best defense against complacency is to eliminate the distance between the floor of the store and the men and women who make the decisions about what happens there. The most intelligent management decree today is to push more responsibility and authority down to the store manager level. Senior brass must develop the tools for teaching managers how to make sure the store is serving the shoppers.

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