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Paco Underhill Talks the Science of Shopping at FFANY

June 15, 2016

“Retail has gone from a series of wars to a bar fight.”  That’s how Paco Underhill, author of
“Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping”, described the state of modern retail during a seminar at FFANY on June 8.  Read all about Paco’s unique, informative insights and observations.

Underhill, an environmental psychologist and author who studies consumer behavior, knows a thing or two about how to successfully sell shoes. He once worked on renovating the shoe sales floor at Selfridges in London. The high end department store now has the highest sales per square foot of any shoe store in the world.

According to Underhill, while much of the 20th century in retail was defined by one-dimensional, “polite wars” – McDonald’s vs. Burger King, Coke vs. Pepsi – the 21st century retail scene is much like a bar fight, with everyone fighting multiple rivals at once.

In a world where everyone in retail is now fighting with everybody else, how does one begin to approach the modern shoe store?

Central to Underhill’s approach is the idea of a visual language. Thanks in part to the internet and smartphones, the connection between consumers’ eyes and brains have never been more important, and this is something that retailers need to pick up on.

“If I look at what made a good shop in the year 2000 and I look at what makes a good shop in 2016 – there are differences, and those differences are a reflection of the evolution of us,” he said

Underhill pointed to Irish-based fast-fashion retailer Primark – which last year made its as one of the leaders in visual merchandising of footwear.

“Go and take a look there because there’s lessons to be learned,” he said. “There’s great try-on space, there are great mirrors, and things are nicely organized.”

Key to visual merchandising is in one part selling a fantasy, and in another helping the customer envision what they’ll do with their purchase. During his presentation Underhill displayed the image of a beautifully organized shoe closet. “It’s eye candy,” he said.

Retailers, in his view, should be talking about shoe storage as much as they talk about shoes, and using in-store displays as a model of how to perfect one’s shoe closet. In-store monitors can also be used interactively, to showcase social media posts of customers and their purchases, helping to express the fun and excitement of being a shoe collector.

Underhill cited progressive shoe and accessories stores as places where customers can now bring the outfits they want to adorn to try on with their shoes or jewelry. This, he said, is part of the magic of visual merchandising.

“You want to find a way to communicate magic, and magic isn’t just in your fixtures and in your products, but it’s in the theater that’s happening around you. If you see someone coming in with their prom dress to try on a pair of shoes, it sticks out in your mind, and makes you think, ‘well maybe I should be doing that’.”

Attention to detail matters. Underhill calls the footwear industry at its best “local, interested, and curatorial.” While global chains like Primark may have the advantage of size, independent shops have one advantage they do not – the ability to understand their specific market.

An independent store owner will know not only the community they serve, but can use that information to help better inform assortment choices, he said. They can also give a personal touch larger brands are often clumsy with.

Still, Underhill pointed out that footwear retailers make countless mistakes that cost them dollars – from sloppy floor layouts to inattentive customer service. He said too many stores don’t know their audience.

“If I’m an independent shoe store and I’m trying to sell women’s shoes, teenagers, kids – I have to be very careful about what the visual experience is,” Underhill said.

For instance, if you’re selling to women, are you also thinking about how you deal with children and husbands?

Underhill said “parking lots” for waiting men, or a selection of toys placed out for kids who accompany their mothers during after school hours are the small yet thoughtful details that can make a woman’s shopping experience infinitely more comfortable.

Shoe stores should also ideally have seating in at least three different heights to accommodate different shoppers. And enough with those puny kids chairs – Underhill said most parents of small children put the shoes on their children themselves. As such, there should be comfortable seating for the parent to put the child in their lap, just as they would do at home.

Part of the problem with many shoe stores, as Underhill explained, is that we live in a world that is largely “owned by men, managed by men, designed by men,” and this often comes at the expense of women, whose needs far too frequently do not occur to the men designing the spaces they shop in.

For example, the need for comfortable, safe shopping spaces is far more important to women than it is to men.

Underhill said, “If I ask you – when is the last time you were scared? [Most men] would have to stop and think about it. And yet if I talk to almost any woman, she will tell you something that happened in the past week or the past month that was just a little creepy. Something happened that made her feel a little weird.”

As a result, Underhill said that when selling to women, it’s key for the design process – and the spaces those designs end up in – to be clean. The items she purchases and the spaces she inhibits must not only be sanitary, but make her feel good too.

Women are also stressed, particularly in regards to their time. As women continue to become the primary breadwinners in the American family, their burdens have only increased. This means when it comes to shopping, retailers need to understand that a women walking in the door is often juggling multiple roles as breadwinner, wife and mother.

The question for retailers then becomes how to treat that underlying anxiety. For some, that one hour of “retail therapy” is precious time to unwind, while for others, it’s simply a five-minute pit stop on the daily race of tasks to complete. Underhill said retailers need to be able to understand both these women and how best to deal with them.

One simple suggestion? Never greet with a yes or no question – it gives the shopper the opportunity to say no. While it’s important to acknowledge the customer, a direct question can make them feel uncomfortable or harassed, Underhill explained.

Instead, he encourages staff to make a general comment about something happening outside, like the weather. Not only does this sound more conversational, but it places less stress on the customer entering the store, while still acknowledging their presence.

Likewise, small visual cues – often sent out through body language – can help a store owner assess customer needs. According to Underhill, many store owners simply do not pay enough attention.

“You should know that when someone’s head starts to waggle – they’re looking for help.”

The gateway also matters. Parking lots that are faraway or difficult to access, or sidewalks that are littered with cigarettes – that’s what people see when they come in the door, and it makes an impression. A customer’s comfort with a store begins before they’ve even entered the door. Sensory details like light, sound and smell all have a powerful impact on shoppers, and these are things retailers can easily control.

“The easiest thing to change in a store is the physical design. The hardest thing to change is the operating culture,” Underhill said.

Part of an effective operating culture is being able to make on-the-spot judgement calls based on a customer’s needs and background. For instance, some women may relish in the idea of a handsome store associate putting their shoes on for them, but for others, this idea would be wildly inappropriate.

“If I’m an elegant Muslim woman, having a beautiful young man at my feet is not halal – it’s not correct. So one of the things we need to work on is making sure that the sales staff can decide for themselves who is the best person to go out and facilitate this shopper’s experience.”

Aside from offering customer help, your employees are also your best mannequins. Underhill says store clerks should look the part, and “reflect the joy and ethos” of selling shoes.

But joyful employees should also be treated with some respect. One of the biggest indicators of how any business feels about its employees, according to Underhill, is the employee bathroom. He says while it need not be extravagant, part of helping to make sure that customers are made to feel comfortable is making sure that your employees are also well taken care of.

Ultimately, Underhill says that the greatest tip of all may be something so simple that many busy business owners don’t think to do it enough.

“Amenability and profitability are linked – if we understand the consumer we get more money,” he said. “You have to lead from the floor – you have to be out during the busy times.”

Thank you VAMP and Angela Velasquez, Editorial Director for this special content.




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