Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping
by Paco Underhill
Hardcover255 pages (May, 1999) Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Mary Case
Shopping is certainly one of the defining qualities of modern civilization, though I wouldnít go as far as the Dalai Lama who said, according to Paco Underhillís book jacket: Shopping is the museum of the twentieth century.
The value of this study for museums goes far beyond the potential of improving how we do retail. Underhill unwraps the academic cloak of visitor studies and reports practical insights to improve product shelving, signs and labels, and register lines, all of which also have direct application for museum exhibitions and public programs. Heís talking about consumers, of course, not visitors, but the similarities are obvious to anyone engaged in the "game of visual stimulation."
Underhillís trackers have spent thousands of hours carefully recording consumer behavior. He tells us about gender (men donít ask questions but do read promo material) and generational (boomers need increasingly more light and contrasting colors to read price tags and other signs) differences and how shopping is likely to develop on the Internet. Most of what he says seems common sense to anyone with the shop-till-you-drop gene (me and my four sisters), but Underhill says it so clearly.
Underhill coined the term "butt brush" referring to the unwanted touching that sometimes occurs when two people are picking through opposite racks of clothing on the selling floor. A butt brush usually makes women uncomfortable enough to leave the store empty handed, no matter how good the deals or how strong the need for a new interview suit or party dress. A particularly relevant point for museums, is the need to get out of the traffic flow to read about or really examine a product. Women especially appreciate a cul de sac where they can step out of the flow for a few minutes to tuck in the babyís shirt, compare product labels, or check their lists.
Chapter Eighteen is a useful example of a self-exam that you and the museum staff can conduct about your museum: itís periphery, exterior, ticket takers, product placement (the exhibits), the cafť and gift shop experiences right down to the cash/wrap line and the receipt.
The information in the book is good and he could have done it faster, say 125 pages rather than 250. Underhillís self-congratulation wears thin as does the frequent, too-cute-by-half insider jokes which arenít really funny.