Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping might be more aptly titled How We Sell: The Science of Marketing. I hoped the book would explore the complex urges that lead us to buy, but instead it seemed to be targeted at store owners who want to improve their sales.

Admittedly, these are two sides of the same coin — author Paco Underhill touches on the psychological aspects of shopping as he discusses how retailers can improve their signs and store displays. But the book is written from the opposite end of the frugality spectrum, from the perspective of those who want to sell you more.

Still, there are lessons to be learned here.

Underhill’s company, Envirosell, sends trained observers into stores to follow shoppers, making detailed notes about how they interact with the products, fixtures, and employees. This information is then used to help the store make changes to encourage more spending.

For example, Envirosell’s research has demonstrated repeatedly that “women especially, though it was also true of men to a lesser extent, don’t like to be brushed or touched from behind.” Because of this, Underhill recommends that the space around makeup counters be large and uncluttered, allowing women to shop undisturbed. If they don’t feel crowded, they’re going to spend more time and more money on makeup.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping is chatty, easy-to-read, and filled with great examples. The best sections of the book are those in which Underhill provides real-life examples of shoppers interacting with their retail environment: little old ladies down on their hands and knees, crawling around looking for the right bottle of aspirin; grocery-shopping fathers who buy whatever their children put in the basket; people, with carts loaded full of electronics equipment, who leave the store because the checkout line is too long.

The longer anecdotes are especially revealing:

I once heard a talk given by the vice president of merchandising from a national chain of young women’s clothing stores in which she deconstructed a particular display of T-shirts. “We buy them in Sri Lanka for $3 each,” she began. “Then we bring them over here and sew in washing instructions, which are in French and English. Notice we don’t say the shirts are made in France. But you can infer that if you like. Then we merchandise the hell out of them — we fold them just right on a tasteful tabletop display, and on the wall behind it we hang a huge, gorgeous photograph of a beautiful woman in an exotic locale wearing the shirt. We shoot it so it looks like a million bucks. Then we call it an Expedition T-shirt, and we sell it for $37. And we sell a lot of them, too.” It was the most depressing valuable lessons I’ve ever had.

Yikes! If you’re willing to pay $37 for a t-shirt, you are not on the path to getting rich slowly. You are headed in the opposite direction.

Throughout the book, Underhill makes some interesting observations about the history of retailing. For example:

Retailers try to maintain service while cutting labor, which is usually impossible to do. Back when stores were properly staffed, and employees were encouraged to stay in their jobs and learn their category, the demands on design and merchandising were few and simple. A store could even be cluttered and disorganized because there was always a clerk available to help, and he or she always knew where everything was kept.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping was published in 1999. In 2004, Underhill wrote Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. This book “talks readers through every aspect of malls, from the first glance at their ugly exteriors along the side of the road to the struggle to remember where the car’s parked.”

If you’re interested in marketing, especially from a retail perspective, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping is an entertaining introduction. It’s not a good choice if you’re wanting to learn how to become a better shopper, but it does offer insight into the ways in which stores manipulate you to spend more. (The Envirosell web site offers the book’s first chapter, “A Science is Born” for reading; the eighteenth chapter, “The Self Exam”, is available as a PDF.)

My next two entries feature lessons from the book on how to spend less and more lessons from Why We Buy.