Why We Buy by Paco Underhill

“Why not take the tools of the urban anthropologist and use them to study how people interact with the retail environment?”

Why do customers buy anything? What are the decisions that influence their buying? Why is it that on certain days, a store is filled with customers and on other days, it is practically empty? How can a store get more customers by making small but important changes in how they present the items?

Paco Underhill, who calls himself an urban geographer and retail anthropologist gives you all the answers. He tells you why people buy and how they buy. He is a major expert who is taken seriously by the biggest companies in the world, such as The Gap. This book is based on decades of research by Underhill, who has closely studied the mechanics, demographics, and dynamics of shopping.


Underhill starts off by comparing the retail stores of today with the past, and where they differ the most is in the environment. The marketplace has changed because of the internet, we no longer read ads in newspapers while making a decision about a purchase. We are inundated with internet ads. This makes it so much harder for store owners to convince people to buy their products.

Underhill explains how store owners spend much of their time competing with each, rather than invest the same amount of time in truly understanding what their customers truly want or desire. He says that the situation in the marketplace is such that we are “overretailed”, if anything. Every store offers the “best deal” or “smartest buy,” so customers should be forgiven for not taking such pronouncements seriously.

So, how does one sell in such a crowded marketplace? One way, as Underhill says, is to have your salespersons interact more often with the customers, engage in a conversation with them and to get them stay in the store for as long as possible. This is because the more time a customer spends in a store, it is more likely that she is likely to buy something. This is actually something store owners have known for generations, but has of late become a lost art as store owners find it hard to get talented salespersons who are also great conversationalists.

 Underhill stresses on how important it is not to leave anything to chance. For example, store owners should not keep the racks too close to one another or have narrow aisles. This leads to overcrowding on holidays and may cause women to feel uncomfortable. And when this happens, the women simply refuse to buy and just go away. The book is full of such precise, practical advice such as this.

Location is critical for the success of a store and determines the items that the store should stock. Underhill also discusses the positioning of the various items, such as keeping dog food in lower racks as they are mostly purchased by children and older men and women. He explains how to plan for the future as Baby Boomers become older. Accurate product placement is perhaps the most important thing that you learn from this book. How the customer touches things has a strong impact on their desire to buy.

This book is invaluable if you have a brick and mortar store – whether you sell groceries, books or DVD players. In fact, Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy has been made a must read by many retail stores for new managers.

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