Why We Buy (Or Borrow)

Posted on May 15, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

Shopping is the museum of the twentieth century — The Dalai Lama

If religion was the opium of the people in the 19th century, and shopping was the museum of the 20th, then surely shopping is the opiate of the 21st.

Depressed?  Go shopping.

Country under attack?  Go shopping.

Recession looming?  Go shopping.

And we just keep buying.

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, as of May 2009 U.S. consumer credit card debt topped 946 billion dollars, up 61% from debt levels just 10 years ago.  And this, of course, does not even factor in non-revolving debt like car loans (1.6 trillion dollars)[1], or mortgage debt (14.6 trillion)[2], and the 6 million families facing possible foreclosure.[3]

Shopping has become a national obsession.

Which partly explains why I was so eager to read Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping.  I also wanted to read the book because I was intimately involved in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s massive “information architecture” undertaking, and this book was one of the underpinnings of that movement.  In 2004, the Library, at over 100 years old and with 19 branches plus the original 1895 Main Library, was in desperate need of “redding up”.  A capital campaign was underway, and 9 locations were slated for renovation in the first phase.

Every one of the branches was different; some were original 19th century gifts from Andrew Carnegie, and some were modern storefronts.  All of them had a problem with visual clutter.  There was no signage system as you might find in a retail store, so every branch had to improvise with hand-made signs.  It wasn’t clear where customers could go for help finding a book, and where they should go to check out books.  There were no policy signs on cell phone use, food and drink, or computer usage limits.  As a result, staff improvised with signs of their own, which usually covered every available flat surface, invariably were an eyesore, and often provided conflicting information.

The Library undertook a multi-year project to standardize wayfinding, empower staff to make signs within the guidelines of a signage system, and eliminate visual clutter.  The Library also wanted to embrace merchandising, so as to increase circulation of library materials.

“Information architecture” became a system-wide obsession.  I was the project manager for the IT components.  In addition to an online “sign manager” system that allowed staff to create signs with unique content on standardized paper templates, there was also a “dynamic signage” component made up of LCD screens, LED ribbons, and projectors, all showing custom content using Flash and SQL Server.  You can see these systems in place by visiting the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Main Library in Oakland.

As one would expect, some parts of the system have worked out well, and some have not.  Certainly, the Library has benefited from a system-wide focus on the customer experience.  And all of the branches, whether renovated or not, look cleaner and neater, and it’s easier to find things.

On the other hand, the animated map, which we hoped would help people find their way around the three-story Main Library, was completely ignored by customers.  It looped through a series of floor maps, highlighting collections of interest and important places like the bathrooms.  But it couldn’t anticipate the needs of the users, and an interactive map would have been much more useful.  Ultimately it was replaced with a scrolling list of donors.

In the end, the biggest failing of the system is the one we so often see in technology systems:  ongoing maintenance.  The LCDs suffer from burn-in, the $500 projector bulbs burn out regularly, especially if the projector fans are not cleaned regularly (and since they are 15 feet off the ground, they are not cleaned regularly), and the database-driven Flash signage suffers from lack of new designs and lack of new content in the databases.

Like the concept that ongoing maintenance is the downfall of many systems, much of Why We Buy seems like common sense – like the observation that “if [display] windows are made so they are easy for employees to get into, the displays will be changed more often than if it’s a pain in the neck.  If something about the design makes carrying merchandise into the window a burden, or if display racks block access to the windows, they’ll suffer from a lack of attention, I guarantee.”[4]

Since the assertions in the book are based on human behavior, there is a certain timeless quality to them, regardless of the fact that Underhill wrote it ten years ago.  He addresses the effects of age, gender, and culture on how people shop, as well as what he calls the “biological constants” of height, vision, and anatomy.  There’s a lot of good stuff here for anyone who wants to create an environment appealing to shoppers, which will lead to increased sales.

Despite the fact that the 2009 edition touts itself as being “Updated and revised for the internet, the global consumer, and beyond,” parts of the book feel dated.  For example, I found it jarring to read that Underhill hopes that someday “shoppers will feed their purchases into a computerized gizmo where a scanner will read the product code, total up the damage, add on the taxes, then swallow a credit or debit card, get the approval and emit a receipt.”[5] Someone needs to get this man a Giant Eagle card!

But in the end, my greatest disappointment in the book is the lack of surprises.  There are no “aha” moments — those times when you suddenly discover something and then realize you knew it all along.


[1] http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g19/hist/cc_hist_sa.html

[2] http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/releases/mortoutstand/mortoutstand20090331.htm

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/18/AR2009021801159.html?wprss=rss_politics&sid=ST2009021801211

[4] Underhill, Paco.  Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping.  2009.  pp. 87 – 88.

[5] p. 208


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