Shopping Reconstructed

Hone your powers of observation to boost sales
by : 

Molly Trimble

June 1, 2013

As a retailer, you want customers' visits to your store to be pleasant and rewarding—for them and for you. You want your customers to easily find what they're looking for, to linger long enough to discover a few things they weren't looking for, and to enjoy their experience in your store so much they return regularly with friends and family. A satisfied customer who appreciates your store, has pleasant interactions with your staff, and leaves with a smile and a purchase is a fitting reward for you and your staff doing your very best each day. Everybody is happy.

So, why do things so often diverge from this script? Why do some customers enter your store, glance at the cash/wrap, then turn and leave? Why do others stop at your jewelry case, pick up a pair of earrings, look around, shrug, and abandon the earrings on the counter? And why do so many customers walk right by the premium chocolates in the charming display by your front door?

Your intention is always to create a great place to shop and buy. And, no doubt your store often succeeds. But, are there mysteries involving missed sales and fleeing customers you haven't quite figured out? Have you rationalized these missed opportunities by telling yourself you can't expect to please everyone all the time? Or by reassuring yourself that a decent percentage of people who walk through your doors at least buy something, so, considering the state of the economy, you're maintaining a pretty good buying average?

That's fine, but what if you could do a few simple, inexpensive things to significantly increase your percentage of buyers and the amount they purchase? Would you do those things?

The mysterious disappearing shoppers

We can assume most people who pass through your doors are primed to buy. Finding out why many of them leave empty handed, and then taking action proven to help them make a significant purchase in your store could take your business from good to great. And great is much better than merely good—for your bottom line, for your pride and satisfaction, and for your future.

Store owners often have no real clue why many who enter their store leave without buying. You have great products, your store is clean and organized, the lighting is good, and your displays are artfully arranged. You can explain a few disappearing shoppers, sure, but for the most part, you don't know why people leave your store empty handed. It's a mystery.

Every mystery needs a Sherlock Holmes, a detective with amazing powers of observation. Your Sherlock Holmes is a fellow named Paco Underhill. In 1999 Underhill published his book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. In 2008 he published an updated version with added material. Everyone who runs a store needs to read Why We Buy. A sweeping statement, I admit, but by the end of this article, you will want to find a copy to buy, borrow, or download. Here's why:

Underhill knows more about consumer behavior in retail environments than just about anyone on the planet. For more than 30 years he has conducted research on shopping behavior where that behavior happens: in stores. As a "retail anthropologist," he studies shoppers in their "native" environments. Through close observation, his army of surreptitious trackers record the tiniest behaviors of actual shoppers, in action, to find out what motivates them to buy—and perhaps more importantly, what de-motivates them.

His findings are often surprising, and his conclusions hard to argue with. He's got the data (tons of data), he analyzes and ponders that data (lots of pondering), and then he field tests his solutions until the poor sales vexing the store owner who hired him turn around, often dramatically. He's learned a lot in his 30-plus years exploring the retail jungle, and his company, Envirosell, is in high demand around the world.

His work is distilled in Why We Buy. In this article I can only begin to share the practical, startling, game-changing information he imparts in his book. Every page of Why We Buy has several gems that can increase sales in your store. Often his discoveries are so basic and his fixes so obvious, you will be amazed you didn't figure them out yourself.

Give 'em a hand

As an example of Underhill's work, how often do you think about human anatomy as a factor in how much your customer buys? And I don't mean gender. Extrapolating from Underhill's research, you could sell a lot more in your store if humans had five hands. With only two hands, shoppers are at a disadvantage, particularly when the shopper is female. Why? Because she's carrying a purse or tote bag and possibly her coat in one hand, leaving just one hand free to pick up merchandise she wants to look at. Any items she decides to buy must be carried in that one free hand. In very short order, she's completely out of hands for more looking and buying.

Yes, she could keep taking her items to the cash/wrap and setting them down for you to stack out of the way until she's done shopping, but once at the cash/wrap, the routine is to pay and go, and very likely, that's what she'll do.

This woman clearly needs what Underhill calls a "shopping aid," better known as a shopping basket (a basket, not a cart, unless your store is quite big with wide aisles). Simple enough, right? But Underhill takes the idea further. He suggests you have shopping baskets available near the front door, yes, but also at strategic locations throughout your store.

Think about it: How often do you go into a store to buy only one or two items, and knowing you won't need it, you pass up the shopping basket by the front door? By the time you get to the back of the store you're juggling six items you didn't remember you needed, and you're looking around for an abandoned basket or cart to put them in. Do you ever find one there? Neither do I—and that's the beauty of Underhill's suggestion.

The shopping basket itself is important, too. "A great shopping basket," Underhill says, "is one customers want to buy or steal." Forget the clumsy, plastic baskets you find in grocery stores. Instead, design a great-looking canvas or nylon tote bag with handles that fit over the shoulder. Underhill suggests asking customers when they're checking out if they want to buy the tote. If it's unique and attractive enough, they will! And just like that, you have an add-on sale.

This illustrates one of Underhill's most basic principals, which I'll paraphrase: As a retailer, you want to ride the horse the way it's going. Meaning, learn how human beings shop a store and make sure you're working with, not against, their natural habits and desires.

Look, listen, and learn

To do this (besides reading Why We Buy), you will want to become a keen and astute observer of the people in your store. A good way to start is to pick a physical space in your store that you've noticed produces fewer sales and is typically less busy than other areas—your "lonesome corner," as Underhill calls it. Is the space you're thinking of to the left as you walk in your door and toward the back? Underhill's research found that people overwhelmingly travel to the right when they enter a store. This "right-leaning bias" is worldwide (except in Japan). Shoppers also tend to travel halfway down an aisle, find what they want, then turn and retrace their path back up the aisle.

Underhill's suggestions? Make your back wall highly interesting and vibrant (reflective surfaces draw attention, for instance). Work, too, on the flow in your store—no obstacles or blind spots to hide merchandise from potential buyers. You want your customers to explore every nook and cranny in your store in the easiest way possible. That means keeping your merchandise visible and reachable, not too low, not too high. Remember, your shopper is traveling your store with only one free hand … unless you've trained your staff to take a tote to customers with full hands and offer to help them empty their items into it. Which they should!

Is your lonesome corner at your entry door? Is that the area where nothing seems to sell, not even your yummiest chocolates? Underhill calls the area inside your front door your store's "landing strip." It's a decompression zone, where shoppers are making the transition from outside your store to inside. Everything changes for the shopper as he enters your store—the sights, the smells, the temperature, everything. For several feet, he isn't going to notice the products to his immediate left or right. He's walking with intention, and his eyes are focused on the overall scene in front of him. He may have glanced at your display of chocolates, but his immediate task is to quickly get his bearings and proceed. On his way out, he may notice the chocolates and wish he had picked up a few, but now he's done and out the door.

So try this yourself: Walk into a few stores in your area you don't usually visit. What do you do as you transition into the store? What do you notice first? Second? How many feet into the store have you traveled before your start paying attention to specific products around you?

What do you find yourself appreciating in each store? Visible, readable signs? Alert, approachable staff? User-friendly shelving? A vibrant energy? What does this store have that helps people enjoy their shopping time that your store doesn't have?

One principle you will learn, simply by reading about Underhill's research techniques, is that your best ally in making your store a great place to shop is your own and your staff's powers of observation. Study how your customers navigate your store. Where do they hesitate and look around? What do they gravitate toward most often? Are the husbands looking for a place to sit while their wives shop? (If the husbands have a place to linger, their wives will have time to shop longer.) Pay close attention to what your customers do—or want to do—in your store, and you will soon figure out surprising ways to increase your sales.

Customer service of the non-existent kind

Underhill's definition of a good store is "one that exposes the greatest portion of its goods to the greatest number of its shoppers for the longest period of time." Common sense tells us he's right. A good way to keep customers in your store is to talk to them. Did you know all the research shows the more contact your employee has with a customer, the more that customer is likely to buy? Underhill uses the term "interception rate," which is the percentage of customers who have some contact with an employee. The higher a store's interception rate, the greater average sale that store achieves. Do you know your store's interception rate?

Hint: If, while customers walk your store, you and your employees are hell-bent on stocking shelves, arranging merchandise, or remaining behind the cash/wrap as though held there by an invisible force, your interception rate is way too low.

While preparing this article, I conducted a personal retail shopping "study." I needed a summer dress for an upcoming event. I picked six stores in my community likely to have something appropriate; three of the stores were independents and three were national retailers. I decided to pay attention to the number of staff-initiated contacts I received in each store.

My experience in all six stores was identical, with one exception: At two of the national retailers, a clerk said "hello" immediately after I crossed the threshold of the store. And that was it. The sum total of interest I received from any staff person in any of the six stores I visited was those two robotic hellos. Other than that, I was completely ignored, even when standing within three feet of a salesperson (and I use the term salesperson loosely).

When I say "completely" ignored, I mean no eye contact, no smile, no interest in my presence at all. And not because the stores were busy with other customers. At the independents, I was either the only customer or one of only two customers in the store. The clerks, I noticed, were busy straightening racks, moving merchandise, or talking on the phone; they were doing just about anything except showing me they were aware I was in their midst.

It was at the last store that I suddenly realized this utter lack of attention felt completely ... normal. I didn't know I had grown to fully expect to track down staff (not always easy) and wrest them away from their housekeeping duties or interrupt their personal conversations if I needed help or had a question about, well, anything.

As you may have surmised, I went home that day without a dress. There may have been one I gladly would have bought in those stores, but I'll never know. The sales staff was too busy, too preoccupied, too jaded to make that sale.

In Why We Buy, Underhill says, "Given the chance, people will buy from people who care." I can say with great assurance no one cared about me-the-customer in those six stores I visited.

Show you care

"We Care" is a great motto. When anything—anything—becomes more important to you and your staff than interacting with the customers in your store, it's time to re-calibrate. You're woefully out of sync. The people in your store are why you're in business. Show them you care they came in and that you would really enjoy helping them make a satisfying purchase.

This is an area where independents have tremendous advantage over the big corporate stores. In our high-tech world, people need to know they count. The personal touch you can offer is balm to the frazzled soul. We forget we miss the personal touch until we venture out from behind our many screens and a real, live person makes an effort to connect with us. Let that person be you.

Customer service is truly a delicate art. Teach your employees to read customers' cues. Too much mindless talking at customers just for the sake of interacting is a turn-off, but noticing when a customer is actively looking for something or seems confused is the perfect time to step up with a warm "Do you need my help finding something in particular?" And always offer them a natural, pleasant greeting when you catch their eye upon arrival. A simple "Welcome!" works great. Just don't let your attention end there.

Customers first, last, and always

The lesson is: Never ignore a customer. Let them shop, yes, but remain quietly aware so you can appropriately engage them with a question or suggestion when the time is right. Underhill's research showed the shopper conversion rate (the transition from "just shopping" to actual buying) increases 50 percent when there is staff-initiated contact. Let me say that again: Staff contact will result in 50 percent more sales from the shoppers in your store.

Are your employees trained to gracefully engage the shoppers they are there to serve? A respectful, friendly, polite employee with product knowledge and an urge to help is money in your bank. The other kind costs you dearly. Don't put up with them. To quote Underhill: "You can't know how much shoppers will buy until you've made the shopping experience as comfortable and easy and practical as possible."

So where'd they go?

Let's return to the mystery of potential buyers who walk into your shop and make a quick exit. Why do they do that?

According to Underhill, there are several possible reasons. Here are a few you can easily fix:

  1. You have a line at the cash/wrap and the potential buyer quickly determines she doesn't have the time or patience to wait in your slow line. Solution: Make crisp (but friendly) checkouts a priority. Practice with your staff. People really, really don't like waiting in lines. If they see a long line in your store, they will leave.
  2. Your potential buyer is a male, he doesn't like to ask for help, and you have no signs in clear view to clue him in to the product areas you carry or where they are. Rather than search every aisle, nook, and cranny, he leaves. Solution: Clear, readable signs and logical arrangement of the items in your store give your customers a feeling of confidence and control as they shop.
  3. Another potential customer in a rush needs to find a quick birthday gift for her niece. She looks around for a clerk, but the one in view is helping someone else and doesn't acknowledge her. She sees no other clerk on the floor, so she leaves for better luck next door. Solution: Teach your sales people to take a few seconds to acknowledge a second customer and summon another clerk to help her. Never ignore a customer.
  4. Some of your store shelves are sparse or missing items. Potential customers immediately feel there's not much to choose from and leave after a cursory look around. Solution: Remove extra shelving from the store and consolidate items until you have more stock.
  5. Your potential customer heard you had nice jewelry at a good price. Like most women she wants a preview by holding earrings to her ears and draping necklaces around her neck, but she needs an adjustable, free-standing mirror to get a good look. You don't have one. She lays the earrings on the counter and walks away. Solution: Buy good-sized, sturdy mirrors for your jewelry counter and anywhere other items (hats? scarves?) need a quick try-on.

Lastly, and in case you're wondering, a disclaimer: This magazine has no financial stake in Mr. Underhill or his books or his company, Envirosell. We do, however, have an enduring stake in you and your store's success. Why We Buy is a book you need to read. If you read it a long time ago, you'll want to read it again. The many practical discoveries Mr. Underhill reveals to improve your store's performance will open your eyes to new possibilities for success literally hiding in plain sight on your sales floor.

We would love to hear your success stories. Tell us what you changed in your store as a result of reading Why We Buy, and your story could be featured in one of our upcoming issues.

Molly Trimble is Publisher of Retailing Insight.