Days of our Lives!

October 17, 2011

Book Review: Why We Buy, The Science of Shopping – Paco Underhill

Filed under: Books — Santhosh @ 9:11 PM

Book Name: Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping
Author: Paco Underhill, environmental psychologist and founder of Envirosell
Year: 2008
Genre: Management, Psychology

This was part of my recommended reading for my Retail Management course at IIM I. Though intrigued by a couple of essays by Underhill, I never got around to actually reading the book until last week. Firstly, Why We Buy should have been How They Buy, because 1) the book is about insights on shopping (and not shoppers), based on elaborate observations of shoppers when they’re shopping and, 2) it’s addressed from the retailer’s point of view.

The structure of the book goes something like this:

  • Opening scene: the retailers were basically village simpletons who happened to have stores that were being visited by cattle masquerading as customers. Oh, and the world as we know it is about to end!
  • And then I, in my magnificent self, and Envirosell (insert trumpet blowing), happened on the scene.
  • Sarcastic commentary with two examples of how ridiculous the current practices were.
  • Trumpet Envirosell’s modus operandi of spending hours collecting data.
  • Voila! Insert insight such as old ladies products being sold on the bottom shelf.
  • Sales went up by 88000%, the retailer has a better looking wife, won Big Boss, and is currently building a temple on the moon to honour me.
  • Deride 2 companies that didn’t take my advice.
  • Trumpet Envirosell’s Science of Shopping.
  • End credits.
  • Repeat.

Okay, it’s not that bad. Mostly.

If you manage to plough through all the noise, there are some nuggets in there. But it’s just that it takes so much persistence and teeth-grinding to actually do so. Where the book does leave a mark is when Underhill talks about facts of consumer behaviour, with empirical evidence arrived at with truckloads of detailed observation of shoppers, data analysis and mining. Such points do provide for some fascinating moments in terms of an anthropological perspective, but Underhill’s writing style and personal opinions mean that it becomes a grind. At places the book is just plain sexist, generalised, and archaic with statements like “We always advise our bookstore clients to group sections by gender, acknowledging the tendency of men to cluster in sports, business, do-it-yourself and computers while women troll psychology, self-help, health, food, diet, home and garden“.

This could have been a truly great book. Or atleast a great read, if he had structured this along the lines of David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising, which was on a similar theme and genre. Where Ogilvy was elegant, simple and prescriptive, Underhill is verbose, tacky and in-your-face.

My Rating: 2/5

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