There are certain physical and anatomical abilities, tendencies, limitations and needs common to all people. The retail environment must be tailored to these characteristics. -Paco Underhill

Yesterday I spoke to a group of local business managers and owners about why their customers buy. The hour-long presentation at the Winona Chamber of Commerce was based on Paco Underhill’s book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and 4 years of research on consumer behavior at local businesses.

Click the pic to buy the book on Amazon.


Over the course of 4 years, 106 undergraduate business students initiated 90 visits to 15 local businesses, which resulted in 270 observation hours and 60 personalized improvement recommendations, most of which were acted upon. Basically we performed free consulting services for the benefit of our town and educational purposes. I think they learned some stuff, too, like:

  • how to talk to an owner/manager
  • how to diagnose consumer behavior issues to be investigated
  • how to convince an owner/manager to take you up on your offer of services
  • how to be invisible while observing shoppers
  • how to provide recommendations that integrate the concepts learned in the book that are also practical

Let me give you an example of that last bullet statement. The first year one group was assigned to a local large retailer that also housed a pharmacy. One of their goals was to track the time customers spent waiting in the pharmacy. Since Underhill found a direct relationship between time spent in the store and how much they buy, the students recommended the pharmacy instill a secret mandatory waiting time for all pharmacy customers in order to get the customers to stay in the store longer and buy more.

<sigh… head in hands… shake head>

Can I just say that I’m super happy I instituted a rough draft policy before I let them stand up in front of the class with the store manager and other executives in attendance and recommend a mandatory customer waiting time? What broke my heart is that they were so sincere in their recommendation, which accurately depicted an important part of Underhill’s science of shopping, however misguided. What Underhill meant, of course, is voluntary time spent in a store will result in higher sales. As opposed to, let’s say, forced pharmacy incarceration. For example, non-buyers in an electronics store spent 5:06 minutes on average, buyers spent 9:29. Non-buyers in a toy store spent about 10 minutes on average, buyers spent 17 minutes.

Personally, you can’t get me in a toy store except kicking and screaming at Christmas and only because the specified toy is absolutely not available in any other location or online. As you may expect, this rarely happens, amiright?

You also can’t get me in a Verizon store; all of those customers waiting and no seats? No distractions except phones and tablets that aren’t hooked up to the internet. “Friendly” staff vetting customers in line, entering my name and reason for visit into their own tablet. I can’t see how long the wait will be. I can’t tell if the others being helped are going to be there until midnight. I don’t like my phone that much and I want every single minute ever spent waiting in a Verizon store back. I think it ages me a year every time I’m forced to go – which is why I send my husband, like the wuss I am.


Some random Verizon store got smart and brought in a clown to help distract the helpless children that were trapped by their parents’ need for an iphone upgrade. I believe the average time spent in a Verizon store is somewhere between 30 minutes and 106 hours. Other retailers have figured out that the longer people spend in their store and keep their kids from being murdered by impatient parents happy and entertained, the more money we spend and the more frequently we visit.

Case in point:


Some fast-food chain, which shall remain nameless, has had this figured out for a while now.


Speaking of seating, why isn’t there more seating absolutely everywhere?

Underhill categorizes seating into three main types: long, medium and short-terms.


Customers need long-term seating, anything over 20 minutes, in locations such as an airport, hospital emergency room, and libraries. Customers need to take care of business while out and about including checking email, chatting on the phone, completing documents on a laptop, and feeding children. Let’s talk about that last activity. In July I wrote a blog post entitled Take away my mammal card if this is how people treat breastfeeding momsAs a former breastfeeding mom of two daughters, I found the best place to nurse my kiddos while out in public: the 4th floor women’s lounge of Nordstrom’s at the Mall of America.

Y’all I’ve never been a Nordstrom shopper because it’s just too expensive, but they got more of my money during those years than ever before. I felt taken care of, appreciated, understood – by a retailer! The lounge is beautiful, private, well-stocked, well-lit and safe. Other moms feeding their babies were chatty and nice, old and young, experienced and new. It was wonderful.


On the flip side, I have boycotted places that did not provide a diaper changing station. Keys’ Cafe and Bakery in Woodbury, MN failed to provide a changing table in either the women’s or men’s bathroom. It’s a family owned business, so what the heck? I never went back. Often, my husband came out of random restaurant bathrooms with a dirty diaper-laden kiddo and said, “sorry, no changing table in the men’s room. You’ll have to change her.”

Customers also need medium-term seating, anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, to sip coffee, browse a newspaper, wait for a train or people-watching at Wal-Mart.

Finally, short-term sitters need seats for rests in the mall, waiting for someone in the bathroom and waiting for a shopping companion outside of the dressing room, like these men sitting on a ledge not intended for seating.


On average, women spend the most time shopping with another woman (8 min 15 sec) and the least time shopping with a man (4 min 41 sec). Would this increase the time spent shopping with men?


Part two continues here: Help me help you, dear retailer.


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