The Science of Shopping
November 4, 1996
Malcolm Gladwell: A REPORTER AT LARGE
The American shopper has never been so fickle. What are stores, including the new flagship designer boutiques, doing about it? Applying science.
Human beings walk the way they drive, which is to say that Americans tend to keep to the right when they stroll down shopping-mall concourses or city sidewalks. This is why in a well-designed airport travellers drifting toward their gate will always find the fast-food restaurants on their left and the gift shops on their right: people will readily cross a lane of pedestrian traffic to satisfy their hunger but rarely to make an impulse buy of a T-shirt or a magazine. This is also why Paco Underhill tells his retail clients to make sure that their window displays are canted, preferably to both sides but especially to the left, so that a potential shopper approaching the store on the inside of the sidewalk-the shopper, that is, with the least impeded view of the store window-can see the display from at least twenty-five feet away.
Of course, a lot depends on how fast the potential shopper is walking. Paco, in his previous life, as an urban geographer in Manhattan, spent a great deal of time thinking about walking speeds as he listened in on the great debates of the nineteen-seventies over whether the traffic lights in midtown should be timed to facilitate the movement of cars or to facilitate the movement of pedestrians and so break up the big platoons that move down Manhattan sidewalks. He knows that the faster you walk the more your peripheral vision narrows, so you become unable to pick up visual cues as quickly as someone who is just ambling along.
He knows, too, that people who walk fast take a surprising amount of time to slow down-just as it takes a good stretch of road to change gears with a stick-shift automobile. On the basis of his research, Paco estimates the human downshift period to be anywhere from twelve to twenty-five feet, so if you own a store, he says, you never want to be next door to a bank: potential shoppers speed up when they walk past a bank (since there’s nothing to look at), and by the time they slow down they’ve walked right past your business. The downshift factor also means that when potential shoppers enter a store it’s going to take them from five to fifteen paces to adjust to the light and refocus and gear down from walking speed to shopping speed-particularly if they’ve just had to navigate a treacherous parking lot or hurry to make the light at Fifty- seventh and Fifth. Paco calls that area inside the door the Decompression Zone, and something he tells clients over and over again is never, ever put anything of value in that zone- not shopping baskets or tie racks or big promotional displays- because no one is going to see it.
Paco believes that, as a rule of thumb, customer interaction with any product or promotional display in the Decompression Zone will increase at least thirty per cent once it’s moved to the back edge of the zone, and even more if it’s placed to the right, because another of the fundamental rules of how human beings shop is that upon entering a store-whether it’s Nordstrom or K mart, Tiffany or the Gap-the shopper invariably and reflexively turns to the right. Paco believes in the existence of the Invariant Right because he has actually verified it. He has put cameras in stores trained directly on the doorway, and if you go to his office, just above Union Square, where videocassettes and boxes of Super-eight film from all his work over the years are stacked in plastic Tupperware containers practically up to the ceiling, he can show you reel upon reel of grainy entryway video-customers striding in the door, downshifting, refocussing, and then, again and again, making that little half turn.
Paco Underhill is a tall man in his mid-forties, partly bald, with a neatly trimmed beard and an engaging, almost goofy manner. He wears baggy khakis and shirts open at the collar, and generally looks like the academic he might have been if he hadn’t been captivated, twenty years ago, by the ideas of the urban anthropologist William Whyte. It was Whyte who pioneered the use of time-lapse photography as a tool of urban planning, putting cameras in parks and the plazas in front of office buildings in midtown Manhattan, in order to determine what distinguished a public space that worked from one that didn’t. As a Columbia undergraduate, in 1974, Paco heard a lecture on Whyte’s work and, he recalls, left the room “walking on air.” He immediately read everything Whyte had written. He emptied his bank account to buy cameras and film and make his own home movie, about a pedestrian mall in Poughkeepsie. He took his “little exercise” to Whyte’s advocacy group, the Project for Public Spaces, and was offered a job. Soon, however, it dawned on Paco that Whyte’s ideas could be taken a step further-that the same techniques he used to establish why a plaza worked or didn’t work could also be used to determine why a store worked or didn’t work.
Thus was born the field of retail anthropology, and, not long afterward, Paco founded Envirosell, which in just over fifteen years has counselled some of the most familiar names in American retailing, from Levi Strauss to Kinney, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Blockbuster, Apple Computer, A.T. & T., and a number of upscale retailers that Paco would rather not name. When Paco gets an assignment, he and his staff set up a series of video cameras throughout the test store and then back the cameras up with Envirosell staffers-trackers, as they’re known-armed with clipboards. Where the cameras go and how many trackers Paco deploys depends on exactly what the store wants to know about its shoppers. Typically, though, he might use six cameras and two or three trackers, and let the study run for two or three days, so that at the end he would have pages and pages of carefully annotated tracking sheets and anywhere from a hundred to five hundred hours of film. These days, given the expansion of his business, he might tape fifteen thousand hours in a year, and, given that he has been in operation since the late seventies, he now has well over a hundred thousand hours of tape in his library.
Even in the best of times, this would be a valuable archive. But today, with the retail business in crisis, it is a gold mine. The time per visit that the average American spends in a shopping mall was sixty-six minutes last year-down from seventy-two minutes in 1992-and is the lowest number ever recorded. The amount of selling space per American shopper is now more than double what it was in the mid-seventies, meaning that profit margins have never been narrower, and the costs of starting a retail business-and of failing-have never been higher. In the past few years, countless dazzling new retailing temples have been built along Fifth and Madison Avenues- Barneys, Calvin Klein, Armani, Valentino, Banana Republic, Prada, Chanel, Nike Town, and on and on-but it is an explosion of growth based on no more than a hunch, a hopeful multimillion-dollar gamble that the way to break through is to provide the shopper with spectacle and more spectacle. “The arrogance is gone,” Millard Drexler, the president and CEO of the Gap, told me. “Arrogance makes failure. Once you think you know the answer, it’s almost always over.” In such a competitive environment, retailers don’t just want to know how shoppers behave in their stores. They have to know. And who better to ask than Paco Underhill, who in the past decade and a half has analyzed tens of thousands of hours of shopping videotape and, as a result, probably knows more about the strange habits and quirks of the species Emptor americanus than anyone else alive?