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Buy Design: Meet Paco Underhill, retail anthropologist
August 10, 2012 8:19 PM   Subscribe

"Nothing is in a grocery store is where it is by accident. Every item on a shelf has been planned." Theatrically lit fruits and veggies? Limbic system-triggering flowers up front? Subtle manipulation of the shopping path? Meet Paco Underhill, master of the science of shopping, author, and founder of a consulting firm that specializes in advising companies on how small changes in retail environments can add up to increased sales. Think of him as a tour guide (YT, from his firm) who explains how these spaces are designed and why we fall for it.

Paco Underhill considers himself a retail anthropologist, and has spent thousands of hours analyzing Americans' shopping behavior: what they touch; how long they spend reading packages; how they move in stores (hint: narrow aisles mean "butt brush," a major turnoff for women who are potential buyers); their responses to signage; how they negotiate the heights at which products of interest are placed. He now advises numerous companies on how these and other factors (such as well-designed dressing rooms) can affect the bottom line.

Further reading/listening/viewing:

* Malcolm Gladwell's 1996 profile of Underhill from The New Yorker, "The Science of Shopping": "In such a competitive environment, retailers don't just want to know how shoppers behave in their stores. They have to know. And who better to ask than Paco Underhill, who in the past decade and a half has analyzed tens of thousands of hours of shopping videotape and, as a result, probably knows more about the strange habits and quirks of the species Emptor americanus than anyone else alive?"

* A 2004 interview with Terry Gross on her radio program, "Fresh Air"

* "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" (story and excerpt here)

* An interview with Underhill in which he talks about the tools he uses in his research

* Underhill and "Giving Good Library" (and bonus article: What happened when the Hayward [Calif.] Public Library took Underhill's advice)

* "The Call of the Mall" (interview here)

* "What Women Want: The Global Marketplace Turns Female Friendly" (story and excerpt here)

* "Why We Shop" (interview): "Q: Is their any single most important thing that you’ve discovered about consumer behavior over the last 25 years? A: ... The biological constants govern the things that are driven by us being right-handed, or that our eyes age in a very predictable manner, or that there are some basic ergometrics, or human measurements, that factor into how we interact with stuff."

And what has he concluded after 25 years of studying shopping? “I think what the recession showed us is that our debts were too big, our cars, our houses our bellies were too big and we all need to go on a diet,” says Underhill. (More on how he sees bricks-and-mortar pricing strategies.) "Acquiring that iPod or that tube of lipstick or that Maserati doesn't change us into anyone other than what we were to start out with and that, therefore, our relationship to consumption here has to be more real."
posted by MonkeyToes (42 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
What, no animatronics?
posted by unknowncommand at 8:27 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So it's his fault I can never find a basket.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:36 PM on August 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


You draw far too much attention to yourself, Mr. Underhill!
posted by ShutterBun at 8:37 PM on August 10, 2012 [20 favorites]


"Acquiring that iPod or that tube of lipstick or that Maserati doesn't change us into anyone other than what we were to start out with and that, therefore, our relationship to consumption here has to be more real.

I want to distribute this quote, on a flyer, to every single person in this country. maybe even on this earth.
posted by ninjew at 8:44 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Acquiring that iPod or that tube of lipstick or that Maserati doesn't change us into anyone other than what we were to start out with and that, therefore, our relationship to consumption here has to be more real."

I'm not sure Adam Curtis would agree. Or perhaps he's never actually seen The Century Of The Self.
posted by hippybear at 8:47 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


On second thought, Curtis would completely agree. This is exactly what A. Freud and Bernays worked so hard to create -- a culture in which consumer consumption is gauged by how "real" it is, despite being something completely fabricated.

They've been remarkably successful.
posted by hippybear at 8:49 PM on August 10, 2012


Ctrl-f baggins... Huh, weird, no matches. Read first few comments... Ah, close enough.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:04 PM on August 10, 2012


a culture in which consumer consumption is gauged by how "real" it is, despite being something completely fabricated.

In which good and evil is replaced with authentic and authentic
posted by The Whelk at 9:07 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Always look on the bottom shelf. They hide the cheap stuff there.
posted by telstar at 9:13 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting stuff. I remember that New Yorker piece.
posted by Forktine at 9:15 PM on August 10, 2012


If only grocery stores could figure out a system to keep all the aisle-hogging, cellphone-jabbering assholes out of the store. They're triggering the emotional part of my brain, but not the part they want to be triggering.
posted by desjardins at 9:24 PM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Really, is anything that we do or interact with not planned anymore? These corporations employ scads of people to study everything about how we interact with and about everything they do to suck every possibly fraction of a penny out of us as possible. It's a great read and a good post, but at this point it really should not be news to anyone. I'm not crapping on this as a post, but really? Is this news?
posted by nevercalm at 9:25 PM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


PACO UNDERHILL!!!

Ahem. I really, really love this guy. Call of the Mall (which I think is about the upscale Short Hills mall in NJ?) is a fantastic read. I can't see shirts on a table without thinking of him. Thanks for this post!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:25 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't buy it.
posted by Sailormom at 9:25 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Really, is anything that we do or interact with not planned anymore?

I'm with Sailormom: I don't buy it (that it works) and I'm pretty sure the entity being taken advantage of in terms of buying shit they don't want or need, is the grocery chains paying big bucks for his consulting services.
posted by fatbird at 9:28 PM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


In Maine, where I grew up, the first thing you'd see going into the grocery store was the produce section.

In Massachusetts, where I'm living now, the first thing you see in the two closest grocery stores is the end of the aisles, generally the cereal/junk food aisles.

I'm not totally sure why the stores are laid out differently, but there is a difference.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:42 PM on August 10, 2012


One need not look any further than the onomonopoetic fluorescence of the laundry detergent aisle to quickly conclude: "either this is working REALLY well, or it's all a bit silly."

A lot has been made about things like casino designs over the years (labyrintine, distracting carpets, eye-catching machines up-front, etc.) and while much is made about the money spent and the money at stake, there's very little in the way of "control vs. experimental" data available.

Basically, he studies it a lot, big companies pay a lot, and it all makes sense on paper. Does it work? (do any of the above links point to a convincing "before and after" scenario?)
posted by ShutterBun at 9:44 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


http://yrathro.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/banksy-hunters-shopping-carts-tribal-grass.gif
posted by dunkadunc at 9:52 PM on August 10, 2012


Is that really a thing? Are people's shopping decisions swayed that significantly by such so-called "guile"? I don't shop anything remotely like that, and assumed I wasn't all that atypical a shopper. Maybe people are less scientific and more credulous than I thought...and I didn't think that much of them to begin with....
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:20 PM on August 10, 2012


I just read through a bunch of these links, thanks for posting it. Fascinating stuff. For those making comments about manipulation, his work as presented here is less about manipulating consumers than it is about educating retailers how to avoid alienating potential customers. I also love that he has made an effort to get libraries to steal his techniques to increase the public's use of their resources.
posted by cali at 10:32 PM on August 10, 2012


Please explain, then, how Barbies ended up next whole wheat pasta at my local Kroger. Something about fiber?
posted by raysmj at 10:50 PM on August 10, 2012


"Nothing is in a grocery store is where it is by accident. Every item on a shelf has been planned." Theatrically lit fruits and veggies? Limbic system-triggering flowers up front? Subtle manipulation of the shopping path?

They obviously haven't been in my local grocery store!
posted by Jahaza at 10:52 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, this is all about women? Only women shop? Women LOVE retail therapy? Women are this way, men are that way?

So, ultimately, retail is the last bastion of sexism? All these comments, and it takes a male home-maker to notice that? On Metafilter?!

Otherwise...

Is this the MoFo responsible for the way grocery stores (think: utility) keep rearranging things? Because I hate that with the heat of a thousand exploding super novas. (w00t heavy elements!).

It's groceries. It's mandatory. I want to go in, find what I need without hassle, pay and leave. The less I have to do with people, the better. Don't block the isles with stocking carts, ever. Keep the employees out of my way. If you're open until 7pm, you better have bread if I come shopping at 5. You already drove the small bakeries out of business, now you keep your shelves stocked. (some of this rant is more directed at European, and especially Swiss stores. We only get 2 real choices, and they both suck: Migros and Coop).
posted by Goofyy at 11:33 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a poo shop! Everything here is made of poo!

Some of y'all know what I'm talking about.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:00 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does it explain why the real butter is up so high I have to ask for help but the synthetic butters fill five shelves? Because I seriously just bake less: asking fellow patrons for help is embarrassing and there's only rarely a clerk right there
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:15 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Then again there's the conundrum of:

"Shall we place the tonic water close to the booze aisle, to be more convenient for our customer, who will reward us will loyalty"?

vs.

"What if we put the tonic on the complete opposite end of the store, forcing him to look through all the aisles, and subject himself to temptation along the way?"

I mean, I get that most vendors are expected to pay premium prices for eye-level shelf space, and that high-profit add-on items are paired with popular items, but sheesh, if the whole theory of supermarket patterns was so well developed, shouldn't we expect to see at least SOME similarity between stores? I mean, I guess produce, meat, and dairy are usually arranged at the side and rear perimeters, but I assume that has more to do with refrigeration than anything else. Besides that, it seems to be a total crapshoot to me.

Or is that merely "working as intended"?
posted by ShutterBun at 2:02 AM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fravia's reality cracking essays may be the forerunner of this research, especially +Orc's 1997 Supermarket enslavement techniques.

Or I just like linking to Fravia, may he rest in peace.
posted by vers at 5:00 AM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


If only grocery stores could figure out a system to keep all the aisle-hogging, cellphone-jabbering assholes out of the store. They're triggering the emotional part of my brain, but not the part they want to be triggering.

LOL. This. To the power of infinity.
Actually, it's so much worse at the local big-box where Dotsmom and I do our Saturday grocery shopping. In fact, I think the chain designed its stores in aggressive opposition to the concepts outlined in the OP, especially traffic flow. Point of fact...There is no traffic flow.

It's one of those typical big-boxes where there are two main entrances, at opposite ends of the front of the store. The grocery section is located all the way to one side of the store, and aisles trace across the width of the store directly into the broad side of the grocery area, like so many torpedo wakes slamming into the hull of a lone, lumbering Liberty ship.

The result is an utter confusion of people and their carts entering the grocery area from all points. There is no flow. It's more like the Saturday night demolition derby at the Speedrome. Or rush hour in Mumbai. You literally cannot get down a single aisle without encountering a blockage. When you reach the end of an aisle, you cautiously peer out around the corner to see from which way the next hit-and-run is coming from. Adding to the insanity is the fact that, since the store is open 24-7, restocking happens at all hours, so you will encounter abandoned palettes of good simply left in the middle of an aisle for everyone to navigate around, increasing the blockage.

If there is a science at work here, it would appear to be akin to the science of John Hammond...And nature has found a way.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:28 AM on August 11, 2012


One word: Wegmans.

I challenge you to shop at one and not end up with at least a couple of impulse buys. I know it's happening when I'm at one and yet I'm powerless to stop myself. The folks handing out free samples definitely don't help, either.
posted by tommasz at 5:35 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Underhill credits William H. Whyte as his inspiration. From the Project for Public Spaces:

"William H.(Holly) Whyte (1917-1999) is considered the mentor for Project for Public Spaces because of his seminal work in the study of human behavior in urban settings. ... All told, Whyte walked the city streets for more than 16 years. As unobtrusively as possible, he watched people and used time-lapse photography to chart the meanderings of pedestrians. What emerged through his intuitive analysis is an extremely human, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious about people’s behavior in public spaces, but seemingly invisible to the inobservant."

NTY obit.

"City: Rediscovering the Center" (William H. Whyte. Foreword by Paco Underhill) looks fascinating.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:00 AM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whyte is fantastic. I'll always remember reading his piece about how and where people like to sit in public spaces, and how small the differences are between spaces that work and spaces that don't. Underhill has good taste in inspiration.
posted by Forktine at 6:18 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Touch-or brush or bump or jostle-a woman on the behind when she has stopped to look at an item, and she will bolt. Actually, calling this a theory is something of a misnomer, because Paco doesn't offer any explanation for why women react that way, aside from venturing that they are "more sensitive back there."


.....seems rather odd to study the behavior of how people shop, down to the most minute shift in direction, but be unable to understand the behavior of why most women wouldn't want their asses randomly brushed against. He's like a telescope-wielding alien on the moon or a small child crouched over an ant hill. Any moment now, we're going to feel the heat of the sun through his magnifying glass.

(Not that I'm against this guy - his observations are super fascinating. It's just this little bit that made me recoil somewhat.)
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:30 AM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Mr. Underhill has a checklist of features for what makes a dressing room successful: adjustable, flattering lighting; ample room to turn around in and to park a stroller; a ''chair plant,'' a place for a companion to sit, and something for that companion to do (toys for children or magazines for men). Not least, it should be clean."

There was a small chain store that I loved (unfortunately a victim of the recession and now gone) that catered to women in their late 20s and 30s -- too old for teenager clothes, too young for Talbot's -- and in every dressing room they had a kid-sized table tucked in a corner with a couple chairs and a stack of coloring sheets and a bucket of crayons. Moms of small children only had to go there ONCE and they went back again and again and again. Preschoolers will sit and color for fairly long periods of time, giving mom lots more time to try on clothes and check out different sizes and so on. Not only did moms try on far more clothes and linger longer in the store, but they came back and started their shopping there because they knew they'd have twenty minutes instead of three before the whining started.

It was the only store I've ever seen do this, and I don't understand why more stores catering to small children and to women likely to be moms don't.

Gymboree has a TV blaring children's movies, but the space is always pretty exposed and hard to keep children corralled in; you also have to walk between the kid-chairs and the TV to get from one rack to another, which very predictably sends half the kids sitting there off running around the store when they're momentarily distracted from the TV.

There's a local kids' boutique that converted one dressing room into a playroom with a half-door (so you can see in but the kids can't get out without an adult). That's pretty good too.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:37 AM on August 11, 2012


One word: Wegmans.

I challenge you to shop at one and not end up with at least a couple of impulse buys. I know it's happening when I'm at one and yet I'm powerless to stop myself. The folks handing out free samples definitely don't help, either.


God, Wegmans! You have spoiled me for any other grocery store. I actually look forward to my weekly trips there. They treat their employees well, so they treat you well too. It's difficult to think of an ingredient they don't stock. And their prepared foods are actually delicious!
posted by peacheater at 10:40 AM on August 11, 2012


"...and in every dressing room they had a kid-sized table tucked in a corner with a couple chairs and a stack of coloring sheets and a bucket of crayons. Moms of small children only had to go there ONCE and they went back again and again and again."

Out of such small human considerations, stores create return patrons. Those chairs, tables and coloring materials probably didn't cost that much, but the combination of immediate practical help, together with the metamessage of "We understand how hard it is, moms," creates customer retention. Underhill would approve, I think.

So it's his fault I can never find a basket.

No, no, he's the guy who tells grocery stores to add stacks of baskets halfway back in the store for the in-and-out shoppers who came for one thing, but grabbed three others along the way.

I challenge you to shop at one and not end up with at least a couple of impulse buys. I know it's happening when I'm at one and yet I'm powerless to stop myself. The folks handing out free samples definitely don't help, either.


Yep, invoking that whole taste/touch/smell thing. I became more aware of store environments after reading "Why We Buy," and have since struggled to balk the system in tiny ways--like going against store flow, sticking to the list, and remembering how much better my homemade versions of certain things are (like bread). But there's something very seductive about all of that bright! shiny! orderly! atemporal! abundance that encourages impulse grabs, and *that's* my biggest trigger to get the heck out of there.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:18 AM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I once complained about a grocery store's new configuration - they sealed off the middle 'crossway' section with more shelves of junk food so I had to hike all the way down long aisles to get what I wanted ("... new company policy"). I stopped shopping there.

Still, I am not immune. The other night I stopped at Trader Joe's and felt sad that I had arrived too late for the food sample and coffee sip. Why else would I be there?!
posted by Surfurrus at 11:20 AM on August 11, 2012


Underhill credits William H. Whyte as his inspiration.

I had heard a story from one of my professors that Watson, the guy who coined the term "behaviourism", had at one point went into a store, watched women buy soap and then asked them questions about what they bought and why. He collected all of his data on packaging, colors, product placement, etc. and went on to make a lot of money with it. I can't confirm that offhand but apparently he was placed to run an ad agency right out of academia so I don't find it hard to believe. AFAIK that would've preceded anyone else doing that type of data collection.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 12:11 PM on August 11, 2012


The grocery store in my neighborhood is set up wrong, with the flow being clockwise, not counterclockwise. I wonder if that is the space or if the owners just did not know of this, or if they have some alternate design strategy. The bigger than a bodega but definitely not a grocery store shop across the street from them is set up right. The line to get to the registers passes by the beer and soda. I am kind of ashamed at how often beer has been an impulse buy there. Now I think I understand why.
posted by Hactar at 8:03 PM on August 11, 2012


Oh hey! I read that guy's book! I have no interest in marketing, but it was right on top of the bargain bin at the bookstore I always go to, and it had a nice looking cover...wait a minute....

The book didn't say anything too shocking, though, other than that small design influences can have enormous impact on sales. After reading the book I heard a more astonishing fact: stores have software that analyzes security cameras to detect how long you linger at particular displays. If they have ten endcaps with chips throughout the store, the boss can get a report on which one is most attractive.

That said, some grocery stores do have some old fashioned disorganized charm. Last time I was at my closest store I spent half an hour looking for peanut butter ... which was neither in the jelly/jam section or the bread section, but in a completely different aisle of nuts and nut products (like almond butter and tahini). Bizarre.
posted by miyabo at 8:38 PM on August 12, 2012


Like PhoBWanKenobi, apparently, I have a nerd-crush on Paco Underhill. Even more than "Call of the Mall" I really loved the book before that one, "Why we Buy." Thanks for collecting all of the multimedia versions of Paco.
posted by whatzit at 4:32 AM on August 13, 2012


...unable to understand the behavior of why most women wouldn't want their asses randomly brushed against.

Are you able to explain it? In particular, why women would hate it more than men? Keep in mind that "unwanted sexual contact from men" is something that both women and men often object to.
posted by DU at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2012


Why Shopping Will Never Be The Same
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:28 PM on August 16, 2012


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