The Holly Whyte of Retail

Paco Underhill, best-selling author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and the recent Call of the Mall, has been described as the “Margaret Mead of shopping,” but his seminal influence is clearly William H. Whyte, the patron saint of urban research. Founder and CEO of Envirosell Inc., a research and consulting firm specializing in retail, Underhill began his career as a self-described “poor part-time adjunct professor” of environmental psychology at City University of New York. In 1974 he attended what he calls a “transformative” lecture on Whyte at Columbia University. Inspired, Underhill conducted a street-mall study that he later showed to Fred Kent and Robert Cook, who were in the process of forming Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to continue the work of Whyte. Underhill became one of PPS’s first staff members and in 1979 founded his own company. Today Envirosell serves a variety of corporate and institutional clients—Starbucks, Gap, Target, Adidas, Selfridges department store, and the U.S. Postal Service, among many others—from offices in New York, São Paulo, Milan, Tokyo, Moscow, and Polanco, Mexico. Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked to Underhill at his New York office about the firm’s process, the problem with retail design, and the future of Internet shopping.

A large part of Envirosell’s business involves research. How does this work?
On research projects, we have three categories of clients. The first is retailers, who call us in as part of store development or evaluation. It may be looking at an existing store as part of the process of giving a design agency their marching orders, or it might be contrasting an existing store with a new prototype. The second category is brands. This may be anyone from technology manufacturers to those of fast-moving consumer products like Kraft and Coca-Cola. We look at how their particular category is being shopped at the point of sale. Take a skin-care product, for example—we’ll look at how it functions in a drugstore or mass-market or grocery-store setting. The third client type is banks, government agencies, and cultural institutions. There we look at the intersection where people, space, products, and information systems interact.

How do you conduct your research?
We generally use a combination of three tools. The first is observation. We have a group of approximately 60 people who spend their weekends in stores, watching how people shop. They function like anthropological researchers. We use the same techniques that sociologists might use at the marketplace in Papua, New Guinea, only we’re using it at the local Pick ‘n Pay. Our job is to look at, for example, the number of people who walk past a store in a shopping mall—the number of people who look, how long they look, whether they stop, and whether they enter. We then take a customer as they’re walking in the door and, very discreetly, observe them go through their shopping process.

Do you videotape them?
Yes. The second tool is that we will often install a series of small video cameras. We shoot anywhere from 50 to 70 hours of some of the most profoundly boring tape you’ve ever seen. But what we look at is the following: If someone pulls an item off the shelf, how do they physically handle it? What pieces of the package are being read? Do they put it back in the right place? The third tool we use is some form of interview. We ask a bit of demographic information—“How often do you shop?”—but we’re not collecting phone numbers. Our focus is on tribal issues. I’m not interested in what Mrs. Smith does. I’m focused on what Mrs. Smith does in contrast to what Mrs. Gomez does.

What kind of information do you give retail designers?
Our product is a written document. What’s made us particularly popular with the creative community is the ability to mix alphanumeric information with pictorial information. This is the number—let’s look at the videotape and see what it means. For most designers, market research works better than Sominex. But we have an active program with a number of firms that look at us as frame makers. Our job is to construct a frame within which they focus their creative energies. Some of it involves forcing the designers to step back from the architecture and look at the purpose of the process or at the operational goals. Here’s one example: In retail we often build the space, and then we add in signage. You can have a gorgeous store, and then someone comes in and puts up all this trashy 20-percent-off stuff. One of the questions we ask is, Why don’t we start with the information or signage systems? Why don’t we think about it like an airport? Someone designing an airport recognizes at certain logical points along the way, “I have to present flight information. I’m designing spaces to deliver that information.”

In your book, you’re critical of retail designers. Why?
First of all, I don’t mean to point my finger at just retail design. It’s the entire design profession. If we look at the history of design education, very little of it is about people, sociology, or psychology. It’s all about drawing, structure, and form. And I think that’s a flaw in the education process.

We also must recognize that historically the design profession—particularly architecture—has been one of the least gender-integrated artistic disciplines. We live in a world that’s run by men, managed by men, owned by men, and yet women run the families and are overwhelmingly the main retail consumers.

But the problem with retail design isn’t just rooted in the architectural houses that do the work. First you must realize that the depreciation schedule for retail fixtures is about five years. So by definition what makes a good store is always in transition. It’s designed for a limited life span. Materials, technology, and lighting issues change constantly. I also think that retail design has been asked to do things by the financial markets that don’t do it justice. For much of the past 25 years, retail has focused on opening new doors rather than on improving or understanding the existing market. So the design process has been crash and burn—get the damn thing done, do the best you can, and accept mistakes along the way because we don’t have time to stop and fix them.

Part of what’s interesting now is that we’re not in the same expansion mode. No one opens a new store or shopping mall to serve a new market; they open it to steal someone else’s market. We’re also getting to a point where, increasingly, we’re going to see a lot of vacant real estate out there.

Five years ago people were talking about the Internet taking over retail. That didn’t happen, but Internet commerce has continued to grow. What place does traditional retail have in a world where Internet shopping is becoming more dominant?
I think the future of the Net as it relates to shopping will be local rather than global. This means that how I use the Net as a shopping medium in New York City is different than how I’d use it in Scarsdale. Second, merchants are increasingly seeing the Net not only as a way of selling but as a way of helping someone with their preshopping ritual. I go online first to see what’s out there, and then I go into the store a better-educated customer. So the Net becomes an interesting tool—one that adds value to the shopping process. What it’s doing now is allowing first-world merchants to get around the cost of labor issues. If I can’t pay for expert sales associates on the floor, I need to find other ways of giving my customer access to information.

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