Paco Underhill is a man engaged in a deceptively half-hearted struggle with his own conscience. Merchandising guru and self-proclaimed inventor of the 'science' of shopping, he heads a wildly successful consulting firm, Envirosell, which boasts an illustrious list of clients including McDonalds, Starbucks, Estée Lauder and Citibank. By his own somewhat immodest admission, he is an acknowledged expert on how women shop for cosmetics, and in the corporate conference room he is deferred to as senior researcher. As the US economy continues to boom and consumer confidence rises with the same upward spiral carrying Wall Street to record highs, Underhill has emerged as a celebrated preacher of the gospel of purchase.
But Underhill is also a student of the universally-esteemed William H. Whyte, the author of such sociologically-astute classics as The Organization Man (1956) and The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), as well as the founder of the Street Life Project and co-founder of the Project for Public Spaces, both of which came into being in New York in the 70s. Underhill is perfectly clear that his business is about boosting his clients' sales, but he is simultaneously compelled to present his work as an extension of Whyte's endeavours to make public space as amenable, pleasant and useful as possible for city dwellers. Underhill's work, we are to believe, brings the tools, dedication and disinterested spirit of Whyte's brand of public service to bear on the realm of retail. But beneath the hollow, camp-counsellor tone of phoney fun and sporty exuberance, there is more than a whiff of disingenuousness, self-service and unease in Underhill's claim.
What exactly does Envirosell do? First and foremost, it observes. Generously equipped with video, digital and Super-8 time-lapse film cameras, the company gathers thousands of hours of visual data. According to Underhill 'We have enough gear ... to equip a major university's school of social anthropology or experimental psychology ... But Envirosell's most important research tool is a low-tech piece of paper we call the track sheet, in the hands of individuals we call trackers'. Underhill's trackers are his stealthy field researchers, inconspicuous scholars of shopping, or, more precisely, of shoppers. Surreptitiously filling their track sheets with information jotted down in shorthand, trackers record the age, sex and appearance of customers, the items they touch, stroke, fondle and smell, the price tags they glance at, the amount of time they are willing to wait in line at the cashier, the manner in which they pay for their purchases - the list is seemingly endless. A single tracker studies up to 50 shoppers a day, at the end of which the track sheets are sent to the Envirosell data department where the information gathered is entered into their extensive database. In other words, when we order a cheeseburger, select our underwear, or sample a new lipstick at the cosmetics counter, we are being watched. We are being tracked. If we find this just a little bit creepy, Underhill alternates between blithe unconcern and self-righteous indignation. At one moment he tells us, 'There's no other way to be sure that were seeing natural behaviour'; at another he takes umbrage: 'I am very sensitive to questions of invasion of privacy... We all accept the techniques of social science field research when they are used to study a rural marketplace in Papua New Guinea. So why should our investigation of a mall in Minnesota be held to a different standard?'
What does this gay science yield? In part, some very obvious information. The human shopper, we learn, has certain anatomical limitations. If products are not placed where they can be easily seen and obtained, their chance of being bought declines. If the aisles on the selling floor are too narrow, women shoppers will be less likely to persevere and find what they are looking for due to the discomfort caused by what Underhill has scientifically labelled the 'butt-brush factor' - that is, the phenomenon whereby other customers try to squeeze by and inadvertently jostle the butt-shy. But the science of shopping is also full of tips for retailers on how to sell more products. Through clever adjacencies (displays products together in the most effective combinations), higher interception rates (the percentage of customers having some contact with an employee), a strategic deployment of mirrors, signs and scents, and other means of distraction designed to encourage shoppers to shop longer and more impulsively, retailers are assured (Underhill has the statistics to prove it) of increased sales.
Why We Buy would be far more interesting if Underhill had delved more deeply in his discussions of some of the larger trends which have altered the face of retail in the last 15 to 20 years. Probably the most important social change affecting shopping has been the erosion of traditional gender roles. Since women have become more integrated into the work force, they no longer have the same amount of time for shopping as they once did, nor do they experience it as the great escape from the home. Also, they now shop for things they used to leave to their husbands. The traditional hardware store, for example, once so forbidding to women, has given way to a proliferation of Home Depots, giant retail emporiums where nuts, bolts and hammers are sold alongside lighting fixtures, curtains, kitchens and bathrooms. At Home Depot one shops not for power tools, but for lifestyle. Similarly, the array of home-improvement shows on television are aimed primarily at women. TV handymen like Norm Abrams resemble nothing more than Julia Child in a tool belt.
Underhill displays a measured optimism in his view of the Internet as a retail medium. Though he recognises the advantages it offers in convenience, speed, information and its potentially limitless selection of goods, he rightly suggests that the Internet is no more likely to replace physical retailing than did the mail order catalogues of a decade ago. To illustrate his point, he poses the apt question: 'can you smell a ripe peach on-line?'. If anything, he argues, the importance of physical retail space has been increasing due to a decline in the power of marketing: product brand names no longer command the loyalty they once did. In the post-Ralph Nader era, the consumer has grown more independent-minded, and although consumer demands are more diffuse, ephemeral and splintered than they once were, Underhill is overstating the case when he says, 'we're all individualists'. Underhill concludes that where merchandising used to be the stepchild of the marketing trade, the balance of influence on consumers has recently shifted from marketing to retail.
Of course, this shift, if true, does give rise to a market for someone like Underhill. In a world that is dangerously over-retailed, Envirosell can claim to provide retailers with the advantages necessary to increase sales. It is this trumpeting of the so-called 'Envirosell edge' that exposes Underhill's claims to being a consumer advocate as utterly delusional. His dilemma is this: as a man whose roots as a researcher are based in public advocacy, he wants to present himself as a disinterested servant of the consuming public, but, in order to demonstrate the usefulness of his business/science, he is compelled to show how the information it produces enables sellers to guide, even manipulate, consumers on the selling floor.
Shopping, as he understands it, is a transforming experience, a method of becoming a newer, perhaps even slightly improved person, born again in the act of purchase. But in perhaps the books most revealing moment, Underhill shares a tale of a transformation which few shoppers would wish to undergo. It is a story of the terrible magic that smart merchandising can perform, in which a clothing store for young women buys T-shirts from Sri Lanka at $3 a piece, sews in washing instructions in French and English, and then proceeds, in the words of the proprietress, to merchandise the hell out of them - 'we fold them just right on a tasteful tabletop display, and on the wall behind it we hang a huge, gorgeous photograph of a beautiful woman in an exotic locale wearing the shirt. We shoot it so it looks like a million bucks. Then we call it an Expedition T-shirt, and we sell it for $37'. In a rare candid moment, Underhill admits, 'It was the most depressing, valuable lesson I've ever had'. One comes away from Why We Buy wondering if Underhill is any less contemptuous of the consumers he so anxiously claims to serve.