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Shopping till we drop

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For a self-described ”retail anthropologist,” choosing the jacket of your first book can be difficult. ”The typeface should be easy to read,” says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. He flips the book back and forth in his hands. ”I’m still not thrilled with the choice of black on red. I think it’s hard to read.”

These kinds of minute marketing choices are Underhill’s bread and butter, and he can’t turn off his consumer X-ray vision, even for a second. He sees missed opportunities everywhere — at the movies, where he ponders the waiting area near the bathrooms (men waiting for their female dates ”will look at or readanything”); at Dunkin’ Donuts, where he wonders why there isn’t a breakfast special. He even has ideas for Entertainment Weekly: ”I read magazines like yours at the gym. Why not have the StairMaster edition, something that’s bound in plastic, a little larger, that’s easy to flip?”

Companies like McDonald’s, Estee Lauder, Blockbuster, and Starbucks hire Underhill’s firm, Envirosell, to track shoppers and learn how they might better target men, women, or senior citizens. His employees follow shoppers, videotape checkout lines, and analyze cash-register tapes, store lighting, display methods, even color schemes and dressing rooms. Why We Buy is a fascinating account of all Underhill has gleaned from his research, from the best way to market dog biscuits to how bookstores should arrange their front-of-the-store tables. Underhill also offers scientific evidence of truths consumers have long suspected: Men, it turns out, really don’t like to shop much, and women hate to shop with men (the average female will shop twice as long with girlfriends).

If all the talk of trackers, hidden cameras, and reading ”the tape” sounds cloak-and-dagger, the thriller parallels haven’t been lost on Underhill, a voracious reader and mystery buff. He’s currently writing a mall-based murder-mystery screenplay, one that might inspire a new pop-psych tag: Retail Rage.

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