“Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”

“Experience design,” as it’s often used in the online world, refers to everything a customer comes in contact with when having experience with a brand—what the colors are, what emotions the design conveys, how the text is written, ease of interaction with the web site, how the content is structured, and much more. Information architects and designers sometimes forget that there is an offline experience as well; Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” explores customer experience and consumer behavior as they affect retail and offline environments.

Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published, but many of its predictions about online retailing have come to fruition.Overall, the book is a lively read, chock full of interesting stories, research data, and case studies. There are sections dealing with product usability, environmental graphics and navigation, demographic issues, location, marketing and promotion. Obviously a seasoned professional, Underhill presents business issues in a straightforward manner, backing up his claims and suggestions with anecdotal and statistical evidence.

Though the majority of the book focuses on “traditional” retailing, Chapter 17 specifically talks about online retailing. Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published (May 1999), but many of Underhill’s predictions about online retailing have come to fruition, and his bottom-line insistence on “you need a reason to start a web site” rings true in today’s economic environment.

One neglected aspect of ecommerce he mentions on the first page of the chapter has already been addressed by many retailers: “Few web sites will permit you to see if a particular item is in stock in a store near you, order it, pay for it and then go in person to retrieve it.” It would be interesting to hear the author’s feelings on the current state of online retailing three years after this was written and see what advances he feels have been made and what problems still need to be addressed.

Another brilliant aspect of this book is its universal appeal. While those interested in usability and ecommerce have snapped it up, it is not limited to those limited audiences. (In fact, those who lament “I can’t explain to my Mom what I do all day” might benefit from suggesting a read of “Why We Buy” and then adding, “It’s like that but with web sites.”)

If there’s any downfall of the book, it would be the sometimes-meandering text. The reader may expect a more of a textbook-like approach to physical experience design, but Underhill’s writing style mixes case studies with anecdotes, business, psychology, and opinions.

Though divided up into four sections and 19 chapters that purport to focus on specific topics, the end results often diverge from their intended subject. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it feels as though Underhill is leading the reader on a walking tour of a business, pointing out issues during the journey and recalling anecdotes whenever appropriate. However, those looking for a tome on the design of physical commerce spaces need look elsewhere.

There are dozens of lessons in “Why We Buy” that can be learned by those involved in web development, whether in ecommerce or brochureware. One is that, even after decades of running tests, Underhill and his staff are still learning new things and uncovering problems they’ve never noticed before, showing that continual learning is essential.

The author also talks about the importance of evaluating elements in the environment in which the customer will interact with them. (“Showing me a sign in a conference room, while ideal from the graphic designer’s point of view, is the absolute worst way to see if it’s any good. To say whether a sign or any in-store media works or not, there’s only one way to assess it—in place.”)

He devotes a good deal of printed space to the differences in the shopping habits of men and women, as well as the growing aging population and children, which suggests that these demographically-influenced habits (and others) could carry over to the online world.

However, two main messages permeate throughout, and they should be familiar, since those involved in designing the user experience online have been focused on them all along.

First, understand your customer and make things easy for them. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable, don’t confuse them, don’t make them do more work than they should. Structure things so that they make sense to your customer, for their actions will determine whether or not what you have done is successful.

Secondly, understand the business goals and design your changes to work towards those goals. Aesthetics, navigation, and structure are of no use if they don’t support the business objectives. And, of course, designing with your shopper/user in mind will help you reach these goals.

About the book:
  • “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”
  • Paco Underhill
  • Simon & Schuster, 1999
  • ISBN 0-684-84913-5
  • 225 pages
  • Hardcover retail price, $25.00; Paperback retail price, $15.00
  • Target audience: Anyone interested in retail or ecommerce
  • Sections:
     I–Instead of Samoa, Stores: The Science of Shopping
     II–Walk Like an Egyptian: The Mechanics of Shopping
     III–Men are from Sears Hardware, Women are from Bloomingale’s: The Demographics of Shopping
     IV–See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Buy Me: The Dynamics of Shopping
Jeff Lash is working on improving the intranet user experience at Premcor. He was previously an Information Architect at Xplane and is the co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture.

Posted in Book Reviews, Design Principles, Reviews | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • christina

    May 25, 2002 at 8:03 am

    You know, I loved this book when I read it a few years ago, but found nothing I could apply to my work at that time. It was a really fun read, though.

  • Paula Thornton

    June 3, 2002 at 8:55 am

    Since most of us are experiencing ‘downtime’, I’ve used mine in a novel way. Relocating to a very rural town, I ‘set up shop’ inside a local grocery store as a cashier. I did this for several reasons. Everyone in town shops there; it’s a good way to get to know the town (as I plan to get involved in urban design). I did there as I have elsewhere, gathered critical observational data about the experiences of employees, customers and the employees ability or inability to assist customers as dictated by the design of corporate/store policies and practices. I bought a copy of the book both for myself and for the store manager…it’s not surprising that stores are the way they are. The book didn’t necessarily tell me anything new…it just reconfirmed beliefs I already held (one of those “need the evidence/research” situations again).

  • Saravjit Singh

    September 20, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    I have not read the book – but must get a copy.
    As a markeeeter with 40 years of experience in industry and teaching, I agree that sophisticated buyers buy because of thier experiene with a brand. It is up to the marketeer to enhance this experience at every touch point. One slip and the customer has had a bad experience that he is unlikely to forget when he next has need to buy a product.
    This has great significance in design of internet technology related solutions for buyers – sadly most designers do not keep this in mind when detailing their design (No one may have told them that God is in the details).

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