"Why We Buy"

Paco Underhill examines the sociology and psychology of the consumerist impulse -- and comes up with a few surprises.

By Todd Pruzan

Published May 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

By the fourth chapter of Paco Underhill's engrossing new study of our shopping behavior, "Why We Buy," you'll have noticed that the author is something of a semiotics master, and probably a bit off his nut. Underhill describes a "eureka moment" that occurred on a sultry August night as he listened to a Yanks game while screening hours of silent, grainy videotape from a drugstore's wall-mounted camera: "I was ... witnessing a shopper trying to juggle several small bottles and boxes without dropping one. That's when it dawned on me: The poor guy needed a basket."

Underhill's taste for shopping porn comes in handy at Envirosell, his Manhattan retail-design consultancy, where he's spent more than 20 years interviewing customers (and scrutinizing them from behind potted plants) in order to teach stores, both real and virtual, how to be nicer to us so we'll buy more, and with more pleasure. And his first book -- probably the first book -- on the sociology and psychology of shopping comes as a revelation. Underhill does for the American store what Jane Jacobs did for the American city: He tells us not how retail spaces manipulate us so much as how they fail and succeed at stimulating us.

"Why We Buy" divulges more about your behavior than you may know yourself: How you ignore items shoved onto the bottom shelf. How you like touching the merchandise, whether it's paperbacks or underwear. How you vacate a store after getting bumped in a narrow aisle (the "butt-brush" factor). But if you think you'll feel silly upon learning that Underhill may have trained a camera on your consumerist ass as you tried to cram it into a pair of Gap khakis, take heart: It's the retailers and product marketers who really look ridiculous. For his research usually yields deceptively simple results -- the kind of thing that should make store planners clap their palms to their foreheads -- and "Why We Buy" documents their sins with gleeful astonishment. There's the maternity store with aisles too small to handle baby strollers, so its stock doesn't sell. There's the supermarket that shelves its kiddie popcorn at adult-eye level, so it doesn't sell. There's the pound-foolish mattress outlet displaying a $2,000 model without sheets or pillows, so customers can't test-drive it ... and it doesn't sell.

Underhill has an inquisitive worldview and a winning voice that reinforces his irrefutable logic. For a book categorized as "psychology/business," "Why We Buy" is surprisingly well written, even weaving in wry cinima viriti: "Stand over here. Behind the underwear. What do you see? A couple? ... Hold on -- what's he saying?" The author treads thin ice just once, when he complains that entertainment media "do a fairly poor job of creating packages with the merchandising function in mind." But books and CDs have more emotional value than vacuum cleaners or Big Macs; yes, covers are hard to read from across the store, but we keep these "packages" forever. (Such disappointing logic seems to inform the book's drab but easy-to-read jacket design. Would we really enjoy shopping more if all books looked this dull?)

Still, "Why We Buy" is immensely valuable for its numerous lessons, which seem obvious only once we understand what we want out of shopping. It's great that someone has explained our habits to us. Now, if only the stores would pay more attention.

Todd Pruzan

Todd Pruzan is an associate editor at Print and McSweeney's.

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