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on January 5, 2009
The first four parts of this book are absolutely fascinating. It's an in depth look at the psychology of shopping and it is exactly what the title promises. Underhill's company gets paid to spy on people in stores and see what they're doing wrong and right. The gems in this book are the anecdotes and the specific revelations about how any obstacle you put in the way of a shopper drops your sales figures. Any way you can make life easier raises your sales. This all seems sort of obvious, but most people running the businesses don't think it through.

One example is the entry zone at the front of the store - you'd think that's a prime location for signage, deals, brochures, etc. But when you're headed through the door into the store you see almost nothing and stop for almost nothing, and then (in America) you tend to drift to the right and then you're 'in' the store. If you put a store directory just inside the door, nobody uses it. Move it back a bit so you can find it once you're into the store and suddenly it's heavily utilized. He has hard observational data for all these, so they're compelling in addition to being fascinating.

And of course all the bad examples are great fun to read (seniors crawling along floors trying to read labels on badly shelved medicine), as are the descriptions of how different groups shop (male vs female, old vs young, parents vs. single, etc.) The whole book is pretty much a commercial for Underhill's company, but it's still informative and fun reading.

Where the book falls down is at the end, where a chapter on the Internet is shoehorned in and a perfunctory shout out to each of Envirosell's worldwide branches is included.

Even though I think he's more right than wrong, the whole Internet chapter comes across as a confused old guy muttering about how he doesn't get that new fangled rock music. He complains about how many review sites there are, for instance, and has no idea how much it can transform the shopping experience (and not just be a poor supplement). Worse, the book's entire premise is mostly about how you need observational data of real customers because they'll always do things you don't expect (can't argue there), but he HAS no data on this topic, so it's just not compelling. I can't help but think the whole chapter is just in there because 'we need something about teh intertubes'.

The 'Come Fly With Me' chapter must be in here because he needs to professionally backscratch all his international partners. It's pretty much useless and turns a mild commercial into an infomercial.

If I sound too negative, please don't take it that way - I'm just trying to tell you why this isn't a five star book. You have 220 pages of 'awesome and can't put it down' book followed by 40 pages of 'what the hell am I doing reading this' slog, then another 30 pages of fairly decent reading. If you don't read those two chapters, it's a five star book!
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on December 3, 1999
When the author sticks to reporting on the things he's observed over many thousands of hours of watching actual shoppers shop, this is an informative useful book. My partner sells pottery out of a studio/gallery and we found much of the data Underhill presents relevant to our experience selling.
However, once he runs out of facts a couple of chapters into the book, Underhill pads the rest of the book out with opinions, and this is where the problems begin. While he may be an excellent observer, Underhill is a poor business analyst. He doesn't understand the dynamics of many of the businesses he comments on. Many of his suggestions are embarassingly ignorant of the realities behind the businesses he discuss, or, worse, suggest--as if he invented the concepts-- that companies should do things that they have already been doing for years.
His chapter on the Internet is a perfect example of both of these criticisms. As someone who has designed and run a successful internet sales site for 5 years I wasn't sure which was greater--his ignorance or his condescension to those of us who have actually done the pioneering work he snipes at.
So read this book with the understanding that Underhill is a pretty good anthropologically-trained note taker,whose observations have turned up several things of interest to the retailer, at the same time that he is a pathetically bad business consultant and would-be futurist, with a pathological need to self-promote and a very annoying prose style.
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on December 27, 1999
This is a book both McDonalds and Ralph Nader would love. In this book, Underhill suggests different methods to maximize retail sales. Some include, for example, common sense solutions such as raising or lowering products so as to fall within the person's view range. Others are based on his research, such as putting a product you're pushing to the right of the best-seller. Many people will gravitate to the desired product (think of it as the magician's trick of "forcing" a card).
The book further discusses the different age groups, family configurations, and genders, and how they shop, maximizing the efficacy of signage and packaging, etc. It has many hints to increase sales over short and long periods of time.
It also advocates making stores more family-friendly. As a parent that has failed to successfully negotiate the Gap Kids' fixtures with a stroller and thus decided not to shop there again, I heartily agree with Underhill's suggestions.
Consumers should also read this book to understand the insiduous (and fascinating) means retailers are using to manipulate them into further purchases. We all know how playing Christmas music is supposed to get you in the mood to buy more. This book details different subtle ways in which retailers are modifying their stores to entice you to buy. My favorite: placing a hopscotch game on the cereal aisle, forcing parents to slow down and become more vulnerable to kids' requests for the latest Sugar Bombs. If you feel that retailers are the enemy, this book will provide further proof.
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on November 6, 2000
I found this book to be interesting, if not mind-blowing, with a lot of basic observations about the shopping experience and the need to make measurement a fundamental part of the way we approach business. The book treads a line between feeding you specific anecdotes and findings from Mr. Underhill's research and giving you a framework for thinking about measuring and tuning your business, but it doesn't commit fully to either path. You may be left feeling like there were not actually that many interesting examples nor was a methodology sufficiently fleshed out to be useful.
I view this book as the non-scientific underpinnings of a science (contrary to the sub-title of the book). Mr. Underhill seems like the gentleman scientists of a couple hundred years ago, making excellent and valuable observations, but not having clearly articulated a scientific method that can be applied broadly. This book is certainly worth reading (and for some it may be a real eye-opener), but I feel that a definitive text on the study of buying behavior has yet to be written (or, at least, discovered by me). In favor of this book, it is a fairly easy and quick read, where perhaps a more comprehensive book would not be as accessible. Consider it ...
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on March 25, 2002
If you've read some of the reader reviews for this book you'll probably detect a bit of a trend. If you're a scientist or student in search of a tome that provides insight into the causes of specific purchasing behaviours this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you are a practitioner (i.e. someone who works as a marketer or perhaps owns or manages a retail establishment) "Why We Buy" provides many, many anecdotes that you will find useful in your everyday life.
This is something that few business books can claim -- immediate practical benefit. Plus, Mr. Underhill's casual writing style is easy to read. My only critique is that the middle third of the book gets a bit dull and repetitive, but the first and last thirds are wonderful.
In short, I would highly recommend "Why We Buy" to anyone who works in retail, whether you're in the front office or on the front lines. I would not recommend it to people in academia as it probably will not provide the "scientific" substance that you're looking for.
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on December 29, 2004
The title suggests that the book discusses the psychology and science of shopping and consumerism. It doesn't. At best, it provides some practical advice to retailers on how to catch the customer's eye, where to position product displays, etc.

If you're looking for a book that actually digs into the psychology and science of consumerism, you might try "How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market" by Gerald Zaltman.
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on January 19, 2000
This had been a great book. I have worked in the book retail business for more than 3 years and I found the book to be full of practical advice. It has made me look again at the business and see how it can be improved further.
The author has mentioned about some changes he would like to see in bookstores in Chapter 18. While there are some interesting comments there like blow-up displays of book jackets and availabilty of bestseller lists, there are 2 things which I believe are not feasible.
Firstly, book stores need to have shelves that are arranged in rows. While I agree that wide aisles and creative arranging of the shelves can make a better shopping experience, the standard arrangement of rows must remain.
I have seen a public library where the shelves where arranged in a circular fashion. Besides experiencing it myself, I have seen irritated readers walking in circles to find the book they want. It created a very dizzying experience.
The second thing is that books must be arranged alphabetically despite what the author said about lower shelves being Siberias of retailing. This is because book buyers are already accustomed to searching for books alphabetically. They were trained by bookstores and libraries all over the world practising this same standard. As the author said in the last chapter, the environment must adapt to the customer.
When Tower Records first started operating a book store in Singapore, they arranged books according to the first names, like the CDs that they sell. Stephen King books were placed in "S" and not "K" like in other book stores. This created confusion for many book buyers and eventually, they realised that the convention for books is to place it alphabetically by the last name. The environment must cater to the consumer.
I have seen a very creative retailer that seems to have solved this Siberia problem. HMV in Singapore have shelves that have a stock area at the bottom and actual selling space about 1 metre off the floor. This allows customers to see all the displayed CDs easily and to reach them without difficulty. A customer can also check for titles that may have been sold out in the stock area. He does not have to check with retail staff if there is stock in the back room. For the business, this means easier replenishment of stock and smaller stock area. The Siberia area is thus converted to useful space. I believe this can be done by book retailers too.
Overall, this has been a very useful book. I recommend it to existing retail managers who wants practical advise on improving the retail business.
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on April 14, 2009
I used the first edition of this text in an American-studies graduate class. This newer edition is a bit updated (always good in a field like this) but mostly just in the last chapter, which is about electronic (internet) shopping. So, if you already have an earlier edition, you probably don't need this one: going to a library to check out the last chapter would be enough to update you. However, if you have no edition, I highly recommend "Why We Buy." Whether you are in the biz of selling or you are just an average consumer, this classic belongs on your shelf and should be periodically reread. I had my daughters read parts of it when they were teens so that they would become aware of how seriously the shopping industry is researched and geared to manipulate shoppers.
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on January 7, 2000
Mr. Underhill and his company are pioneers in studying the retail environment in a methodical and 'scientific' way. The whole methodology depends on observation, thorough observation; which is later subjected to analysis and from that analysis they come up with valuable conclusions and suggestions for their clients.
The book does, however, contain parts in which Mr. Underhill wanders off his area of expertise and starts projecting into the future without solid basis; therby losing some credibilty.
It also seems that Mr. Underhill is not well versed on Marketing and I quote from Page 206, "But since the early '80s, PoP has really become a player, & now commands a seat at the selling table right next to marketing's", Any apprentice of marketing knows that PoP (point of purchase) is one of the many sales promotional tools that are only one part of Marketing Communications which is but one of 6 main categories of tools at the marketer's disposal. In actuality, PoP does in fact have a chair on the Marketing Table along with many other tools, such as the internet. I think Mr. Underhill shares a common misconception held by many non-marketers that marketing = advertising; while in fact advertising is still only a tool and only part of Marketing communications just like Sales Promotion is.
The book is full of useful and insightful retail information. The essence of the book is how to keep the customer in the store longer, at a greater level of comfort and easy navigation.
Mr. Underhill is backed with years of observation and study of how a shopper interacts with the retail environment; an essential read for anyone in retailing and FMCG brand management.
A great reference book.
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VINE VOICEon February 15, 2001
This book explores the psychology, sociology, and ergonomics of shopping and retail display in depth. During the first several chapters of this book I was fascinated by some of the facts and anecdotal stories that the author presented. This fascination lasted for about half the book however. As the book progresses the author drifts from his presentation of the science of shopping to his endless, but often unsupported, suggestions on how shipping can be improved.
The early chapters contain more descriptions of actual studies on shopping that Underhill's consulting firm has done. Whether you're a casual shopper or the owner of a retail store, these chapters are loaded with useful information. The author explains how simple changes to product display or packaging can make dramatics changes in the volume of product purchased. In the later chapters, it almost seems as though the author has run out of material. Instead of describing actual case studies, the author goes on a length with his personal opinions on how shopping could be improved today and how it will change in the future.
Some of his suggestion seemed pretty wild. Designer toilet paper?? Other suggestions he makes just don't seem to be reasonable to me as a consumer. Example: He suggests that computer stores don't put all of the software, printers, monitors, etc in separate sections but rather disperse them throughout the store. I don't know about Mr. Underhill, but when I go out to buy a monitor or printer, I want to see them all side-by-side so I can compare them. I don't want to run around the store trying to find them all. He has countless similar suggestions that seem dubious to me and are not backed up by any of his research.
His predictions for the future also seem rather odd. Example: As baby boomers age we'll see companies like Harley Davidson making sporty wheelchairs so upscale boomers can transition from their Harley cycles to their Harley wheelchairs.
It is clear that the author is not thrilled about online shopping. Although some of his suggestion for how to change it indicates that he has not had much experience with it. He recommends that sites do things that they are actually doing today. Example: Why can't we order groceries online? - You can in most major cities Mr. Underhill.
If you're in the retail business, you can probably learn a lot from this book despite the negatives I mentioned. I'd recommend it for anyone in this line of business. If you're just looking for an interesting book about shopping, I think that you too will have mixed feelings. It starts out interesting, but soon becomes tedious to read.
This a review of the unabridged Audible.com version of this book (downloadable audio). This is an excellent audio version and the reader was one of the best I`ve heard.
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