“Why We Buy” – The Science Behind Consumers’ In-Store Behaviour

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre, on

Understanding the purchasing behaviour of target markets – really knowing why consumers make the decisions they do – is imperative for informing marketing decision-making and providing the insights that allow brands to deliver real value to customers. What happens in-store can impact the behaviours, motivations and decision-making processes of target audiences – and it’s a fascinating arena to explore.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill

One of my favourite reads on the topic of consumers’ in-store decision-making is Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill. It’s an engaging read on how people act, and react, in retail environments and it helps unravel some of the mysteries of why we buy. Informed by extensive, disciplined observational research, the book explores how people are influenced by the retail spaces around them, as well as how they respond to in-store merchandising – signage, displays and point-of-purchase advertising.

Walk This Way

Underhill describes himself as a “retail anthropologist” and “urban geographer”. His research methodology consists of “tracking” consumers as they shop, observing their behaviours and taking copious notes. How long do people spend in a store? What paths do they follow as they navigate around the store? What do they pay attention to? Where? When? How many people who enter a store will actually make a purchase?

3-D Retailing

According to the author, a store has three vital dimensions: design, merchandising and operations, all of which interrelated and interdependent. Store design and lay-out, in-store merchandising and display, and the actions of employees, all impact each other. Change any one, and the other two will inevitably be affected in a way that changes customers’ in-store experiences.

Don’t Keep Me Waiting

Wait times, says Underhill, are the number one factor that impacts the way customers evaluate the service they receive in-store. The shorter the length of time they think they spend waiting, the higher people rate customer service overall. Underhill describes a number of techniques to reduce perceived wait times. If retailers can make people think they spent less time waiting in line (whether at the cash register, in dressing rooms, or at the customer service desk), they can positively impact customers’ assessment of the shopping experience, and their overall satisfaction with the retailer’s brand.

“Men are From Sears Hardware, Women are From Bloomingdales”

The book looks at the stereotypes and the real differences between how men and women shop, and how the retail marketplace is responding to these differences. It also discusses the changes in women shoppers’ needs as they move away from traditional roles into more influential professional roles, and how working women have altered the way stores are designed. As women spend more time working and less time shopping, women’s in-store behaviour is becoming more like men’s, but that said, women still are much more likely than men to see shopping as a form of entertainment. The implications for retailers specifically, as well as for marketers in general, are intriguing.

The Science of Shopping

Today more than ever, organizations need all the information and insights they can gather to gain and maintain competitive advantage. Retailers, like all other brands, must understand their customers and meet their needs. Underhill’s observational research provides some fascinating insights into how retailers and others might better meet consumers’ current and evolving needs.

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Cathy Whitehead McIntyre

Cathy Whitehead McIntyre, Principal of Strategic Initiatives Inc, is a marketing research consultant specializing in qualitative research. She was one of the first in Canada to use online qualitative methodologies.

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