In the name of shopping science, Paco Underhill has crawled through stores on his hands and knees, aimlessly roamed mall parking lots and conducted fieldtrips to women's restrooms for wide-eyed males.
As a "retail anthropologist," he studies shoppers in their natural habitat -- the suburban mall -- and helps merchants figure out the best way to empty customers' wallets. His clients range from Sunglass Hut to Saks Fifth Avenue. He also writes books about his research.
RecentlyUnderhill took a break from promoting his newest volume, "Call of the Mall" (Simon & Schuster), to amble around Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, Calif., pointing out merchandising gimmicks and blunders.
He began in the foyer of JCPenney, an area he calls "the landing strip" or "decompression zone." As shoppers enter a mall from outdoors, their walking speed downshifts and their eyes need time to adjust to the lighting. "This transition stage is one of the most critical things we've learned in two decades of studying how shoppers move through retail environments," Underhill explains in "Call of the Mall." If merchandise is placed too close to the door, it doesn't get noticed, he says.
Many department stores locate perfume counters near the entrance, a throwback to pre-automobile days when fragrance sections were "a bulwark against the stench of horse manure coming in from the street."
After zipping through Penney's, Underhill steps into the heart of Del Amo, a retail behemoth so sprawling it contains two Victoria's Secrets, two Carlton Cards and two Bath & Body Works.
As he navigates the mall, Underhill reels off statistics, trivia and play-by-play commentary on the sights around him.
Most of his banter zeroes in on "ways that merchants shoot themselves in the foot," such as a maternity store with aisles too narrow for baby strollers or a clothing shop with barebones fitting rooms. "Why don't we do a better job of romancing the dressing room?" he asks, going on to recommend adjustable lighting that simulates outdoor and indoor environments. "The dressing room is often the least glamorous part of a store, and yet it's where so much of the decisionmaking happens."
In Robinsons-May, he notes the contrast between the sleek cosmetics displays and the clutter behind the counter -- clunky beige cash registers, 1980s-era telephones and frayed notebooks. If the store is trying to peddle glamour, he says, it should modernize the entire operation.
At Styles, a women's clothier, Underhill spots a mistake so common he can't resist meddling. With no clerks around to stop him, he bolts for the display window and starts rearranging the mannequins.
A moment later, he returns outside to explain his handiwork: Most mall window displays are aimed straight ahead, which means the only way to see them as you stroll past is to crane your neck unnaturally or walk sideways. A better method, he says, is to face the display slightly sideways, so the shopper sees it while approaching the store.
Hmm. That sounds fine if the customer arrives from the right side, but what about people approaching from the opposite direction? Wouldn't they see only the backs of the mannequins? Yes, Underhill says, but they'll be vastly outnumbered. That's because research shows that most mall pedestrians follow a counterclockwise loop through a mall -- except in Britain, where people drive on the left side of the road and thus prefer a clockwise path as pedestrians.
Underhill, a self-described "tall, bald, stuttering research wonk" who spends one-third of his time on the road ("There are more than 100 American malls to which I could give you accurate driving directions off the top of my head," he notes), has seen just about everything in retail. He can tell you, for example, that products displayed on tables sell better than those on shelves or racks.
But he's in for a surprise at Hermit Crab, a kiosk vendor near the middle of the mall. It's a tub of beach sand crawling with tiny crabs in hand-painted shells. It's an eye-catcher, but Underhill finds it slightly creepy: "This is a testament to the fact that we are fascinated by critters ... but how soon will it be before the ASPCA (cracks down)?" For the uninitiated, that's the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In his book, Underhill, 52, devotes a short chapter to kiosks, which originated in Boston's Faneuil Hall shopping center and have become cash cows for mall owners, with annual leases running as high as $50,000 for a 45-square-foot cart.
Other chapters explore the psychology behind mall food courts, shoe departments, parking garages and cosmetics counters. "Here's a bit of voodoo (used) in the world of high-end cosmetics," he writes. "They never go on sale. Ever. Because women, it is thought, will not buy discounted cosmetics." Instead, manufacturers offer "gifts-with-purchase." Spend a certain amount and receive a free gift valued at $25. "The point is to give you the sensation of having saved $25 without having to discount the cosmetics."
"Two-thirds of what we buy, we had no intention of buying when we came in." The trick for store owners is figuring out how to trigger those impulses."
One popular technique is the "six-second greeting," which requires clerks to greet shoppers no later than six seconds after they've entered the store, on the theory that customers who talk with employees are more likely to buy.
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