Skip to main content

What shoppers want

Famed retail expert Paco Underhill delves into what triumphs–and tanks–in grocery stores.

Paco Underhill has women on the brain. His new book, What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly (Simon & Schuster), takes a deep look at how women’s influence and shifting role in society is changing the world around us. While the book covers cars, technology and cosmetics, there are also useful insights into grocery and food.

If you’ve never heard of Underhill, it’s time to head down to your local book shop. His other two books, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping, have became bibles of retail, and it’s safe to say What Women Want will be just as valued. The founder and CEO of Envirosell, a New York–based consumer insight and consulting company, Underhill has spent 25 years methodically shadowing shoppers, learning how they navigate the aisles of a store. He’s discovered what entices them to buy and what makes them flee a store empty-handed. In this interview with Canadian Grocer, he gives some no-holds-barred advice for the grocery industry.

1 You've said that the cash and entry areas are the most important parts of a retail store. How can grocers improve the front of their store?

First of all, manage the decompression zone coming into the front of the store. Second, recognize that the reason you have flowers and bakeries and sampling stations up front is to get people’s saliva glands moving. Third, recognize that if you take care of a shopper’s accessories, which may be children, husbands, mothers or fathers, that they become much more efficient shoppers. For example, we don’t normally think of a grocery store as having seating. But having a place for somebody to plant their husband or their mother who they don’t want to leave at home is not just an act of kindness–it’s good marketing sense.

2 You’re famous for turning the term "butt-brush effect" a nervous feeling customers get when they're bumped from behind by other shoppers in a cramped aisle) into a catchphrase. Have you noticed any other revealing in-store phenomena lately?

There are a number of things: one is “placemaking,” which is the idea of making a store a place. So rather than just being a landlord for brands, it’s trying to be a placemaker. That definitely applies to grocery. And second, as somebody said to me yesterday, “If you keep momma happy, the world’s happy.”

3 Speaking of moms, in What Women Want you point out that women pay attention to tiny details, such as pillow firmness, when staying at a hotel. Do they pay as close attention to detail in supermarkets?

Probably the single most important issue in a grocery store is the appearance of clean. That starts in the parking lot and encompasses the outside of the building, the state of the bulletin boards, the floors, the fact that the customer walks in the door and sees staff in the constant act of cleaning. I cannot emphasize enough how much hygiene and food are linked. Nothing collapses you more in the eyes of the customer than being dirty.

4 You’ve pointed out that retailers are using curved lines to appeal to female shoppers. While you say women don’t automatically “equal curves,” how much of a role do esthetics play in pleasing female shoppers?

I’ve certainly taken a lot of flak in some of the blogs that say “ ‘Men are straight lines, women are curves’…what kind of bull are you talking about?” But one of the things to recognize is that, historically, a grocery store is the single most concentrated collection of straight lines and 90-degree angles that you’ll find. But if you look at the new Sobeys and the new, very beautiful Longo’s in downtown Toronto, they have a much softer feel.

5 You believe hotel restaurants aren’t offering enough female-friendly fare (too much cheese and butter, not enough fruit, veggies and smaller portions). How are food manufacturers holding up on their end?

I think it is not just a matter of the manufacturer; it’s the way the manufacturers and the merchants choose to present their goods. One of the things we’re seeing in North America is that the centre store of a grocery store is losing market share every year. That means other merchants have seen, processed and are, in a way, organizing better to serve some of the segments of our community

6 What are some things retailers can do to prevent female shoppers from feeling “creeped out,” as you say in your latest book, in a grocery store?

There are a couple of things. First of all, being cognizant of lighting issues. Lighting is an extremely powerful tool, and lighting isn’t just inside the store. In Canada you are dark for a significant part of the year and therefore you also have to consider the lighting in the parking lots, getting in the door and back out to the car.

Also, one of the seminal human needs is to be recognized. One thing I love about Trader Joe’s–one of the great grocery merchants in North America–that it does probably better than any grocery chain in North America, is they ask their employees to greet every person they meet eyes with. It isn’t “Can I help you?” or anything intrusive, it’s just the fact of nodding or saying hello. That feeling of acknowledgment, that somebody’s recognized me, is one very simple way to make a change to your store.

The other piece is, what’s the line in that old Bob Dylan song? “When you see your neighbour carrying something, help him with his load, and don’t go mistaking paradise, for that home across the road…” One of the things a grocery store has to do, and this is an operational issue, is recognize when somebody is struggling–whether it’s struggling with a kid or struggling to get the dog food into the cart. Or as somebody’s checking out, it’s looking at them and asking, “Do you need some help loading this into the back of your car? Can I send somebody out with you?” In a world of female-friendly retail, it’s often acts of kindness that win you loyalty.

7 What else can grocers do to personalize the shopping experience without it seeming forced?

One of the things I love about some of the Japanese supermarkets is there is often a picture of the farmer and the field where something was grown. So rather than just advertising “local peaches,” there is a specific reference and a picture of who grew it. Personalizing stuff gives it value. One thing that does is put pictures up of the people that run each section of the store. Also, when the produce manager sees somebody looking at a tomato display, for example, he’ll offer samples. He’ll pick an apple up, whip the knife out of his pocket, and say “Try it.”

8 Let’s talk about online presence. How can one store differentiate itself in the crowded social media world?

The idea of stores having Facebook sites and blah, blah, blah, I think that’s a passing issue. I feel we need to look down the road and start thinking about how the modern woman is going to shop 10 years from now. If you look at a typical Canadian woman who is a wife and mother and pulling down a job and said, “I could give you back five hours in your week,” she would say, “Where do I sign up?” One of the problems with the modern grocery store is that 80% of our weekly grocery purchases are routine. You have already decided the kind of yogurt, milk and juice you want. Maybe there is seasonal variation or somebody is coming over and there is some change in that process, but the overwhelming majority of our grocery purchases are routine, and so somewhere down the road we’re going to start figuring out what’s fun to shop for and what isn’t. That “what isn’t fun” part is going to migrate one way or another to some convergent technology. So say I’ll log onto I make a list of all the things my smart kitchen has told me it needs, and I make an appointment to pick it up at the store. Then I go to my local Sobeys and buy my vegetables, meat and flowers–the things that are important for me to pick up personally. Then I hand them my chip and I pull up at the side door and somebody puts the rest of my groceries in the back of my car. I cut the amount of time I spend in the grocery store to a fraction.

9 Your books offer tons of statistical and anecdotal information about how people shop. But even if a retailer implements your suggestions, there’s no guarantee they’ll work. There are a lot of intangible elements to consider. Can you expand on that notion?

In retail there are both offensive and defensive issues. Defensive issues are often about being clean and giving a sense of security. Offensive issues, in a positive sense, are ways in which you are offering the consumer something that delights them. Nobody thinks historically of grocery stores being particularly exciting. One of the places consumers often respond to change negatively is in a grocery store because this is the place they’re in every week. If you move something around it’s like, “You’ve confused me–this is my store, not yours.”
On the other hand, one of the things about a grocery store is the predictability of traffic. I know the store is going to be empty at 11 a.m. on Monday morning and I know it’s going to be really busy on Saturday at 11 a.m. So a good manager should be thinking, How am I going to respond in terms of the differences between how my store functions daypart by daypart? Part of what this means is taking some tactical control over what happens on the floor. It may be as simple as asking yourself, How do I allocate my labour cost? What music do I play inside my store? Or it may be the visibility of management. And it may be the degree to which I’m localizing, which doesn’t just mean local produce, but is reaching out to the local audiences within the communities that I like to serve. For example, there are parts of Toronto where having a halal meat section is a really good idea. I’m guessing that in Alberta or Manitoba, 98% of people don’t even know what the word means.

10 You say that end caps and freestanding displays can’t be judged until they’re in action. How can a grocer realistically go through the trial-and-error process in-store without spending too much of their time on it?

One of the critical pieces for grocery management moving forward is that you have to lead from the front. Your employees will respond to what you do. Often a manager sets everything in motion and then every Saturday morning they’re on the golf course rather than occasionally being in the store running the show. If you’re in retail, I think spending one weekend a month on your feet at the point of sale is a very important part of your commitment to your job. Whether you’re the chief marketing officer or chief financial officer, that connection to the floor in grocery remains one of the seminal parts of the industry that you just can’t escape.

Retail reading:


What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly

Women hold undeniable clout throughout the world’s marketplace, but what goes into making a product, store or service female friendly? Underhill’s newest book shares research to help retailers understand this ever-important market. Underhill plots how women’s increasing wealth and power impact buying behaviour.

Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping

Over the last 40 years, the mall has replaced the town square as the central community gathering spot. No wonder so many movies end up there (think Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Scenes from a Mall and Paul Blart: Mall Cop). In this book, Underhill explores how shoppers move about these concrete palaces and how malls entice them to stay. One interesting observation: food courts offer an amazing diversity of meals, but you can’t buy a plain old apple.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping

Many retailers use this as their go-to book for getting inside shoppers’ minds. The insights are based on covert in-store observations by Underhill and his colleagues. Published in 2000, it was updated in 2008 with information on online consumer trends. From the placement of shopping baskets to customer browsing habits, the advice can turn a store from blah to brilliant.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds