Paco is considered the originator, for example, of what is known in the trade as the butt-brush theory-or, as Paco calls it, more delicately, le facteur bousculade-which holds that the likelihood of a woman’s being converted from a browser to a buyer is inversely proportional to the likelihood of her being brushed on her behind while she’s examining merchandise. Touch-or brush or bump or jostle-a woman on the behind when she has stopped to look at an item, and she will bolt. Actually, calling this a theory is something of a misnomer, because Paco doesn’t offer any explanation for why women react that way, aside from venturing that they are “more sensitive back there.” It’s really an observation, based on repeated and close analysis of his videotape library, that Paco has transformed into a retailing commandment: a women’s product that requires extensive examination should never be placed in a narrow aisle.
Paco approaches the problem of the Invariant Right the same way. Some retail thinkers see this as a subject crying out for interpretation and speculation. The design guru Joseph Weishar, for example, argues, in his magisterial “Design for Effective Selling Space,” that the Invariant Right is a function of the fact that we “absorb and digest information in the left part of the brain” and “assimilate and logically use this information in the right half,” the result being that we scan the store from left to right and then fix on an object to the right “essentially at a 45 degree angle from the point that we enter.” When I asked Paco about this interpretation, he shrugged, and said he thought the reason was simply that most people are right-handed. Uncovering the fundamentals of “why” is clearly not a pursuit that engages him much. He is not a theoretician but an empiricist, and for him the important thing is that in amassing his huge library of in- store time-lapse photography he has gained enough hard evidence to know how often and under what circumstances the Invariant Right is expressed and how to take advantage of it.
What Paco likes are facts. They come tumbling out when he talks, and, because he speaks with a slight hesitation-lingering over the first syllable in, for example, “re-tail” or “de-sign”-he draws you in, and you find yourself truly hanging on his words. “We have reached a historic point in American history,” he told me in our very first conversation. “Men, for the first time, have begun to buy their own underwear.” He then paused to let the comment sink in, so that I could absorb its implications, before he elaborated: “Which means that we have to totally rethink the way we sell that product.” In the parlance of Hollywood scriptwriters, the best endings must be surprising and yet inevitable; and the best of Paco’s pronouncements take the same shape. It would never have occurred to me to wonder about the increasingly critical role played by touching-or, as Paco calls it, petting- clothes in the course of making the decision to buy them. But then I went to the Gap and to Banana Republic and saw people touching and fondling and, one after another, buying shirts and sweaters laid out on big wooden tables, and what Paco told me-which was no doubt based on what he had seen on his videotapes-made perfect sense: that the reason the Gap and Banana Republic have tables is not merely that sweaters and shirts look better there, or that tables fit into the warm and relaxing residential feeling that the Gap and Banana Republic are trying to create in their stores, but that tables invite-indeed, symbolize-touching. “Where do we eat?” Paco asks. “We eat, we pick up food, on tables.”
Paco produces for his clients a series of carefully detailed studies, totalling forty to a hundred and fifty pages, filled with product-by-product breakdowns and bright-colored charts and graphs. In one recent case, he was asked by a major clothing retailer to analyze the first of a new chain of stores that the firm planned to open. One of the things the client wanted to know was how successful the store was in drawing people into its depths, since the chances that shoppers will buy something are directly related to how long they spend shopping, and how long they spend shopping is directly related to how deep they get pulled into the store.
For this reason, a supermarket will often put dairy products on one side, meat at the back, and fresh produce on the other side, so that the typical shopper can’t just do a drive-by but has to make an entire circuit of the store, and be tempted by everything the supermarket has to offer. In the case of the new clothing store, Paco found that ninety-one per cent of all shoppers penetrated as deep as what he called Zone 4, meaning more than three-quarters of the way in, well past the accessories and shirt racks and belts in the front, and little short of the far wall, with the changing rooms and the pants stacked on shelves. Paco regarded this as an extraordinary figure, particularly for a long, narrow store like this one, where it is not unusual for the rate of penetration past, say, Zone 3 to be under fifty per cent. But that didn’t mean the store was perfect-far from it. For Paco, all kinds of questions remained.
Purchasers, for example, spent an average of eleven minutes and twenty-seven seconds in the store, nonpurchasers two minutes and thirty-six seconds. It wasn’t that the nonpurchasers just cruised in and out: in those two minutes and thirty-six seconds, they went deep into the store and examined an average of 3.42 items. So why didn’t they buy? What, exactly, happened to cause some browsers to buy and other browsers to walk out the door?
Then, there was the issue of the number of products examined. The purchasers were looking at an average of 4.81 items but buying only 1.33 items. Paco found this statistic deeply disturbing. As the retail market grows more cutthroat, store owners have come to realize that it’s all but impossible to increase the number of customers coming in, and have concentrated instead on getting the customers they do have to buy more. Paco thinks that if you can sell someone a pair of pants you must also be able to sell that person a belt, or a pair of socks, or a pair of underpants, or even do what the Gap does so well: sell a person a complete outfit. To Paco, the figure 1.33 suggested that the store was doing something very wrong, and one day when I visited him in his office he sat me down in front of one of his many VCRs to see how he looked for the 1.33 culprit.
It should be said that sitting next to Paco is a rather strange experience. “My mother says that I’m the best-paid spy in America,” he told me. He laughed, but he wasn’t entirely joking. As a child, Paco had a nearly debilitating stammer, and, he says, “since I was never that comfortable talking I always relied on my eyes to understand things.” That much is obvious from the first moment you meet him: Paco is one of those people who look right at you, soaking up every nuance and detail. It isn’t a hostile gaze, because Paco isn’t hostile at all. He has a big smile, and he’ll call you “chief” and use your first name a lot and generally act as if he knew you well. But that’s the awkward thing: he has looked at you so closely that you’re sure he does know you well, and you, meanwhile, hardly know him at all.
This kind of asymmetry is even more pronounced when you watch his shopping videos with him, because every movement or gesture means something to Paco-he has spent his adult life deconstructing the shopping experience-but nothing to the outsider, or, at least, not at first. Paco had to keep stopping the video to get me to see things through his eyes before I began to understand. In one sequence, for example, a camera mounted high on the wall outside the changing rooms documented a man and a woman shopping for a pair of pants for what appeared to be their daughter, a girl in her mid-teens. The tapes are soundless, but the basic steps of the shopping dance are so familiar to Paco that, once I’d grasped the general idea, he was able to provide a running commentary on what was being said and thought. There is the girl emerging from the changing room wearing her first pair. There she is glancing at her reflection in the mirror, then turning to see herself from the back. There is the mother looking on. There is the father-or, as fathers are known in the trade, the “wallet carrier”-stepping forward and pulling up the jeans. There’s the girl trying on another pair. There’s the primp again. The twirl. The mother.
The wallet carrier. And then again, with another pair. The full sequence lasted twenty minutes, and at the end came the take-home lesson, for which Paco called in one of his colleagues, Tom Moseman, who had supervised the project. “This is a very critical moment,” Tom, a young, intense man wearing little round glasses, said, and he pulled up a chair next to mine. “She’s saying, ‘I don’t know whether I should wear a belt.’ Now here’s the salesclerk. The girl says to him, ‘I need a belt,’ and he says, ‘Take mine.’ Now there he is taking her back to the full-length mirror.” A moment later, the girl returns, clearly happy with the purchase. She wants the jeans. The wallet carrier turns to her, and then gestures to the salesclerk. The wallet carrier is telling his daughter to give back the belt. The girl gives back the belt. Tom stops the tape. He’s leaning forward now, a finger jabbing at the screen. Beside me, Paco is shaking his head. I don’t get it-at least, not at first-and so Tom replays that last segment. The wallet carrier tells the girl to give back the belt. She gives back the belt. And then, finally, it dawns on me why this store has an average purchase number of only 1.33. “Don’t you see?” Tom said. “She wanted the belt. A great opportunity to make an add-on sale . . . lost!”