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Books We Recommend: “Why We Buy”

The more info you have about the client and their needs, the better equipped you are to solve their problem.


Every marketer, merchandiser, brand specialist or anyone involved in the art (or science) of convincing people to part with their money needs to read this book by Paco Underhill. Mr. Underhill’s the founder, CEO and President of Envirosell, a company that basically watches people shop and then makes recommendations on fine-tuning the retail experience around them.

Why Designers should read this book:
Even if you’re not involved in merchandising, in-store display design or retail interior design there are some principles and ideas that I found useful:

It’s all about Context: Viewing your slick new sign or packaging on screen or printed large displayed in a boardroom doesn’t give you a true indication of the effectiveness of the design. You have to see it in context. (E.g. designing packaging for medication displayed on shelves: how much text is necessary? How small is too small? These are answered by finding out who the buyers are, and whether they make purchasing decisions based on the volume of information or the perception of the brand) It might not always be possible to completely mimic the corresponding context but being mindful of it makes for a more effective design solution. (e.g. knowing that supermarket shoppers have a zone of maximum visibility spanning from eye level to just below knee level helps you design better when you have to design for large boxes to be stored on the floor)
“A mediocre sign in the perfect place is better than a great sign in the wrong place.”

“Sometimes the obvious isn’t apparent:” Once you get a better understanding of the reality of the situation, then you can make the most informed decisions. Most of the times the decisions are obvious but without the data, you’re more likely to make illogical choices. E.g. logic would suggest the front door is premium placement, but knowing about the Twilight Zone as Mr. Underhill calls it, tells you that a few feet in from the entrance is better. What I take from that is what we’ve all known, but it bears emphasizing. The more info you have about the client and their needs, the better equipped you are to solve their problem.

Problem Solving is Universal: Regardless of the media you work in, we’re visual problem solvers, and the same creative, lateral thinking skills are needed in solving merchandising problems. As a designer fueled with understanding of the psychology & physiology of how our work is to be viewed or used we become a valued team member and not just a third-party vendor. Mr. Underhill basically views the retailer’s store as a 3D TV commercial, a Walk-In print ad or website and the user-friendliness of the store directly determines the success of that business. The issues of useablilty, eye-flow and perceived value are the same in 3D as they are on the web or in print.

Customer Service goes a Loooong way: Having gone through some horrible customer service experiences recently I can attest to the power of simple gestures like apologies and understanding smiles. The difference between my writing off a store and my swearing loyalty to them is not in whether I had a flawless customer experience but in how I was treated. This advice goes more to fellow creative business owners but if you have any interaction with a client then you’re in customer service and you’d be surprised how influential simple phone etiquette is.

The Big Three in Retailing: Design, Merchandising and Operations. They’re intertwined so if one is strengthened the weight is less on the other two, if one is weakened, the other two have more work to do to compensate. Being aware of the effect design will have on the operations of the store makes you a better problem solver.

The Role of Online retailing:
It won’t make real-world purchasing obsolete because people trust and feel more comfortable buying from other people. But it will change (or has already since the book was written back in 1999) the way we shop by offering the obvious advantages of convenience, selection and speed. How this helps the e-commerce web designer is the knowledge of what sites do well and what you shouldn’t expect them to do at all. Here’s another review of the book more focussed on the online user-experience aspect.

The Science of Shopping.
You’d think by now those in the business of convincing us to part with our money in exchange for goods and services would have this merchandising thing down already, considering how saturated our lives are with advertising, selling and/or purchasing stuff. But as Mr. Underhill points out as long as humans are the ones doing the shopping, the subtle nuances of our behavior while we shop will constantly evolve and give us more to learn.

Andrew Davies

Drew's degrees in Illustration, 2D animation and Broadcast Design, and his volleyball skillz mean he can get your design done and play well with others at the same time. He’s the Creative Director at Paragon and will call you out if you start hanging out with shady-looking fonts and messing around with whacked-out color palettes.


2 thoughts on “Books We Recommend: “Why We Buy”

  1. Manchild says:

    Hello Andrew,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out and let you know the results of my reading.

    Great post!! I’ll be back when time permits.


  2. Drew says:

    Hey Manchild,
    can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the book.

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