The Science of Shopping

Last October 29th, I had the privilege of attending Paco Underhill’s talk on ‘The Science of Shopping’ at the Conrad Hotel. I first read Paco’s book ‘Why We Buy’ in 2007, and his insights on customer behavior in the retail setting was part of my inspiration to go into teaching.

Evolution of Retail

Retail has definitely evolved from the traditional ‘build it and they will come’ mantra of the past, to a more scientific and analytical understanding of the industry. Previously, with fewer shopping choices and retail spaces available, customers would have to contend with whatever retailers wanted to offer. Never mind if displays were stacked up unattractively like garbage, stores were lit like bathrooms, and sales staff barely uttered a word of greeting. Retailers of the previous generation had the free hand to execute their retail plans in any way they wanted — terms such as ‘customer service’ and ‘retail excellence’ were practically unheard of.

Foreseeing What Your Customer Needs

In recent years, retail has become a science. Retailers are now designing their stores and crafting their merchandise offering in direct response to customer behavior. It is no longer enough to simply give customers what they’re looking for. Paco tell us that retailers must provide customers things even if they do not ask for them, or even if they do not know they want them. He admonishes all retailers to put themselves in the shoes of their customers — to see with their own eyes. Paco gives a good story of a children’s apparel store where the owner complained why shoppers did not stay long inside his store even if the displays were ‘attractive’. Ingeniously, Paco asked the retailer to sit on a skateboard, move forward across the store aisle and imagine that he was a 6 year old. Immediately, the retailer realized that the floor modules in his store were not child friendly — and in fact, were safety hazards.

Elevate The Experience You Deliver

The new retail should now focus on elevating the experience that retailers deliver to their customers. As retail businesses have been evolving faster than ever before, retailers must always keep in mind that it is now their duty to exceed all customer expectations. And the only way to exceed a customer’s expectation is to actually determine what these expectations are — i.e. retailers must continually speak to their customers, probe into their purchase decision process, and observe their behavior in and around the shop. Henry Ford was once quoted as saying, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’.

Is ‘Gut Feel’ Still Enough?

The older generation of retailers I know would always tell me that business is mostly about ‘gut feel’ — if you feel it will do well, then go for it. But perhaps gut feel is no longer enough when trying to understand the more complex, connected, and sophisticated shopper of the new generation. The cliche ‘the customer is king’, has been brought into a new level in the retail industry of today. The customer is not only king — he or she defines how each and every retail business must be run.

So my advice to all retailers out there is to spend more time away from your desk, and inside your store selling area. Watch. Observe. And learn.