In 1999 Paco Underhill released a terrific book called, Why We Buy: the Science of Shopping. He revealed the why of our purchasing habits.
“In Why We Buy, Underhill explains why we do what we do, notice what we notice, ignore what we ignore and buy what we buy.”
At the time the book came out, my career had temporarily sidetracked (very happily) from opening hotel resorts into retail, and Why We Buy became a sort of bible for me. Read the book reviews and you’ll see they run the gamut from “magnificent” to “misleading.” I was definitely on the magnificent side of opinions spoken because I had sort of fallen into retail by default and didn’t bring all that much knowledge about it with me. If Paco Underhill had answers for me, I wanted to have them.
I learned a lot about buying habits from that book. Because I was not that entrenched in the traditional retail mindset, Underhill wasn’t shattering any paradigms for me; he just sparked bunches of aha! moments, and I was an eager student. As I read his book, there would be certain phrases that would jump out at me like bursts of brilliant lights:
“Why We Buy is about the struggle among merchants, marketers and increasingly knowledgeable customers for control.”
“Why We Buy explains how consumer and retail marketing has gone from being a war to being a bar fight.”
“There is a reason why the Jeep Cherokee comes with a makeup mirror on the driver’s side.”
In fact, reading them out of context helped me and my staff think for ourselves in the framework of our own four shops. When I had ShopTalk (my weekly staff meeting) we’d put one of those phrases on the table for discussion and on-the-shop-floor applications that same afternoon would be immediate. There were a lot of customer insights and merchandising ideas that came out of those meetings. Underhill’s book helped us pick our trees out of the very dense forest.
The lessons I learned from Why We Buy have stayed with me a long time, way after I did my last storeroom inventory and tagged my last markdown. I needn’t think that intensely about them anymore. However as with most books, over time I tend to distill the many lessons into one central take-away, and this is the one I took from Why We Buy:
When I evaluate my own business now (not specifically retail, but still a selling business), the question that I ask myself on a continual basis is, “why should they buy — from me?”
The answer also tends to be fairly singular: It’s got to be because what I offer the potential customer is simply better. Better than anything else that’s out there, better than anything anyone else can do for them. It’s a better value, a better experience, a better everything. It’s the best part of me and what I can do for someone else.
I’m pretty sure that Paco Underhill’s book had a lot to do with me finally giving up on the pursuit of perfection. Better can be best far and above perfection. I saw this in action again on my recent Spring Break vacation with my family when we fit in some outlet shopping one afternoon.
My daughter and I went into a Calvin Klein store that must’ve been as close to perfection in merchandising display as you’ll ever find in an apparel store. Everything looked pristine and untouched, and we noticed it as soon as we walked in the door. We’d soon find out why.
We walked over to a section where women’s casual tops were precisely folded and stacked by color and size in chest-high shelving units. On the top of each unit one of each color was fanned out for the customer to see the selection. The moment we approached the display and picked one garment up we were flanked by two salesgirls. They were cordial but it was obvious they were there for one and only one reason: to perfectly refold everything we touched immediately after we set it back down. It was pretty clear they wanted us to look but not touch. Finally, one of them couldn’t stand my daughter’s indecision on a color anymore and said, “Why don’t you just let me get it for you when you finally decide what you want.”
It didn’t take long for their hovering to get to us. We left the store in its cold, sterile, lonely, and perfectly pristine condition without their making a sale to what had been two customers very willing to part with their money.
When it comes to selling, people can be turned off and intimidated by perfection. We want comfort when we buy, and we want to feel and touch. I agree with Underhill that online shopping will never replace stores we can walk into, not by a long shot. We hate locked cases, and we love test drives. “Shown actual size” will never be as good as “looks great on you.”
When we sell, our job will always be to make what we have to offer simply better. That’s a very big part of the art of the sale. It’s a lot easier to sell when you know that what you have to offer is simply better. Not perfect, but heads and shoulders above the closest possible comparison. And feels better is best.
Be simply better.