Why We Buy

I don’t normally read business books, but I needed a U for last year’s A-Z Challenge and I couldn’t find any fiction book by a U author that interested me, so I raided my sister’s book stash. My sister, marketing manager of the supermarkets of a major retail chain, was about 21 pages into the book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill when I encroached upon her reading! :D

Paco Underhill is the CEO of Envirosell, a multinational market research company with bigwig clients such as Microsoft, McDonald’s, Adidas, and Estee Lauder. In Why We Buy, Underhill shares valuable information about shopping — the science, the mechanics, the demographics, the dynamics, and the culture — culled from years of observing shoppers in action.

What I like about this book is it doesn’t read like a market research book. Paco Underhill writes in a conversational tone, directly addressing the reader, making you feel like you’re sitting at a cafe with a friend, caught in an animated conversation.

It is a great market research book, though, as Underhill has decades worth of anthropological experience in the field and a lot of juicy information to share, whether you’re a retailer or a consumer.

For retailers, the biggest lesson to take away from this book is that the obvious isn’t always apparent. Things that may appear to be common sense — such as positioning signage and stocking items — may get lost in the details when you’re planning your store, and a sharp eye or an alternate point of view may be just the thing you need for you to be able to institute little changes that will serve your shoppers better, get those tills ringing, and draw in some loyal clientele.

Underhill shares anecdote upon entertaining anecdote to illustrate his points, and most of them are simple solutions — such as cutting waiting time at the cashier, repositioning items to where they’re most accessible, and providing seating areas — that do stores a world of good.

For consumers, the book is an insightful and highly amusing look at shopping behavior, consumer trends, and even marketing ploys. It’s funny how you recognize classic situations in Underhill’s anecdotes — leaving a store empty-handed because the line’s too long, or you can’t find the assistance you need; wandering around a store in frustration because there are no signs (or they’re all facing the wrong way); setting out to buy one product and going home with three (or four, or five!); or zeroing in on an impulse buy that’s just too good to resist.

One drawback to the book, though is the chapter on the internet. Yes, the 2009 edition proclaims that it has been “updated and revised for the internet, the global consumer and beyond” but Underhill makes it clear he isn’t fully sold on online shopping, and it’s clearly an afterthought in this book. Brick and mortar stores are Underhill’s (and Envirosell’s) expertise, mostly because they can’t track what shoppers do in the privacy of their homes, and so this part of the book is quite irrelevant.

Oh, and another thing, Underhill should get a better cover designer for his books, because if he’s correct about the 2.9 second viewing time for any kind of sign, well, the front cover (or the heavily cluttered back cover, for that matter) of this book doesn’t cut it.

Still, I admire Underhill for his revolutionary approach to demystifying the science — or the art — of shopping. I don’t work in retail, but I have clients who are, and I think I have a better grasp on the subject after reading this book. Now I’m bugging my sister to finish reading it, and then we can have fun pretending to be Paco Underhill the next time we go shopping.


Why We Buy, trade paperback, 4/5 stars

Book #189 for 2010

U for the A-Z Challenge


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3 thoughts on “Why We Buy”

    1. it’s like one of those human behavior docus on Discovery. very fascinating!

      i have another book of his — The Call of the Mall; I think I’ll read it this year too.

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