What Main Street Shops Can Learn From Retail Giants

Insights from Paco Underhill, a world thought leader on shopping behavior, retail environments and ‘Why We Buy.’

Paco Underhill has researched and verified just about everything there is to know about retail shoppers.

He knows they bolt through the entryway “decompression zone” of public spaces before slowing down and turning right, thus making the space located 5-15 paces beyond and to the right of entrances retail’s most valuable real estate.

He knows there’s a correlation between how long people spend time in a store (waiting time excluded) and how much they buy, and that they’ll buy more if you free their hands by providing them with a shopping cart or bag. He knows they’ll abandon purchases they were prepared to make if they see a long line at the cash register — and that most women will U-turn and leave an aisle if it’s so narrow that another shopper gives them a “butt-brush.”

He knows these things based on decades of meticulously researched retail insights, which are detailed in his best-selling book, “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” (Simon & Schuster, 2008), now available in 27 languages.

When I asked him what Main Street merchants would learn if they could afford to tap the wisdom of one of the world’s foremost retail advisors, he offered the following answers.

Barbara Findlay Schenck: Do the same shopping principles that apply in big brand stores apply on Main Street?

Paco Underhill: The principles are true in every physical environment, whether an airport, public library, hospital or retail store. The key aspect that makes a local store different is that the social interaction is more positive. Think about a local convenience store. People go in three times a day, in part because they’re greeted. In our modern culture there aren’t many places where people experience contact like that.

What common mistakes hold small retailers back from greater sales success?

Historically, the evolution of an American small retail business begins with great enthusiasm, then somewhere along the way the level of owner energy declines. Someone gets lazy and starts to neglect important details:

- They neglect cleanliness. Hygiene is very important, especially to women.

- They overlook the need for change. New windows and reorganization on the floor is necessary to create a sense of evolution that brings excitement to the space.

- They quit leading from the front. They begin hiding in the back room doing paperwork or whatever rather than being seen on the floor. Employees, who look to the owner as the example of how to treat customers, then assume a similar style.

- They forget that part of the importance of being a merchant is simply being there. Somehow they decide that it’s more important to go to the soccer game every Saturday afternoon. At least some of the time, owners need boots on the ground.

- They assume that because they’re small, the Web isn’t an asset. It’s a way to get rid of items that have gotten long in the tooth, and a way to network with best customers.

There’s a very strong consumer bias for well-run local businesses. Look at the popularity of farmers markets. But it has to have an energy, freshness and evangelical joy to it.

What are a few actions small retailers could and should do to better compete in today's retail environment?

Progressive retailers adapt to global retail trends:

- Engage all five senses. Shoppers are conscious of what they see, taste, smell, touch and hear. Sense marketing is an inexpensive way to impact the customer experience.

- Day-part your store. Customer traffic patterns are predictable. Use knowledge of the demographics and desires of shoppers in various moments as a merchandising tool. For example, adjust music mixes throughout the day — you don’t need 47 mixes, but perhaps five. Historically, owners use music as a placatory for staff. But it also serves as a signal to customers you do — and don’t — want in the store.

- Realize the continual need for freshness. Stores consume energy. They go through a birth-life-death cycle. A plaque outside the door reading “Open since 1927” celebrates life and longevity. It also announces that everyone else who was there in 1927 isn’t there any longer. And that’s not necessarily bad. When shop owners get tired and lose focus, it’s time to move on.

That final truth is strong medicine. It also delivers a jolt that can renew energy and revive small shops. For more information, Paco Underhill’s books — “Why We Buy,” “Call of the Mall” and “What Women Want” — provide facts and findings that can help you breathe new life into your shop — and sales.

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