Review: Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.

The man is studying a narrow segment of modern anthropology, the science of shopping. The fieldwork methods are adapted from those of environmental psychology, Underhill’s field when he began studying shopper behaviors 20 years ago for major retail chains. Over the years Underhill has developed 40 different variables of shopper behavior to describe every facet of the shopping process. Once the fieldwork for a client is complete, Underhill’s team at Envirosell go back to the office to enter data and do a computer analysis of their personal and videotaped observations. These result in often-surprising recommendations to retailers on how to increase sales: move this display, raise that sign, widen this aisle.

Underhill found a direct correlation, for example, between the time a customer remains in a store and the amount he will purchase. The higher the “interception rate” (contacts with employees), the higher the chance of purchase. Placement of key merchandise in a “transition zone” near the door — but not too near — is advised. He studies the “boomerang rate” (the percentage of shoppers who failed to walk down the full aisle), determines the “capture rate” (the percentage of customers who actually “see” a given product on the shelf), details differences in the shopping patterns of men vs. women, and examines diversions to help time spent in line at the checkout stand seem less onerous.

“The science of shopping is a hybrid discipline,” he concludes, “part physical science, part social science, and only part science at all, for it is also partly an art. But it is always a practical field, concerned with providing information that can improve the retailer’s edge and cut the odds of making a wrong decision.” Pretty heady stuff.

However, I’m not too interested in the sociology of brick-and-mortar shopping that comprises this volume. But I’m fascinated at how these methods might be adapted to studying and fine-tuning online stores. Using cookies and logfiles, shoppers can be tracked from their entrance into the store to their final checkout. Patterns can be developed, changes made in the site, and the effect scientifically determined. The more stake you have in profits from your online store, the more seriously you’ll want to apply these kinds of methods to increase the conversion rate in your store. After all, if you can boost your conversion rate from an existing 2% to a hopeful 3%, that’s a 50% increase. The payoff will be big,

Underhill does discuss Internet shopping a bit in a chapter entitled “In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Shop.” Will online shopping displace brick-and-mortar stores? “Even if Web site shopping doubles the catalog’s success rate, 80 percent of shopping will continue to be done in the real world,” he says. I find myself agreeing with his estimate. He sees cybershopping advantages as (1) limitless selection, (2) convenience, (3) speed, and (4) lots of product information. Three big things, however, only physical stores can offer shoppers: (1) touch, trial, or any other sensory stimuli, (2) immediate gratification, and (3) social interaction.

There’s no cyber version of Why We Buy available at the bookstore. Until there is, savvy storeowners will make sure someone on their staff is learning how to adapt Underhill’s methodology to study their company’s website. Larger online stores ought to be hiring people trained in social sciences research methods to conduct studies. In a market as huge as the Internet’s, those who learn how to perfect their online stores will certainly have the advantage — and may even be around five years from now to tell how they did it.

Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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