Tuesday Book Club: Why We Buy

why we buyEvery month Adam and I go through all our receipts to find out exactly where our money went. We collect all of them in a drawer over the course of the month and the accountant in our family patiently sorts through them for tallying. It’s really helpful to see where our “latte effects” are (they are, in fact, often in the form of coffee or drink breaks) and how we allocated each month’s funds. It really takes the mystery out of personal finances and it’s something I recommend, especially for newly married couples.

Last week I started Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill and it has made me think even harder about how and, well, why we shop. My family often joke about my penchant for consumerism and shopping, but there is definitely some truth to be in found in their quips. I enjoy shopping. I like wandering around shops and contemplating purchases. But it’s nice to read in the book that this female stereotype is rooted in the more primitive pastime of gathering, which was the predominant role for women throughout the past hundreds of years. We’ve been trained to find the best fruits, nuts, berries, groceries, housewares and clothing.

In fact, one of my favorite passages of the book describes a fundamental difference between the way men and women shop:

“Guys are genetically disposed to be hunters, so they walk to the woods and are unsuccessful unless they can kill something reasonably quickly and drag it back home through the mudroom. Women are gatherers who get immense pleasure out of the act of looking. Thus, two women can spend the day at the mall, buy nothing and have a wonderful time.”

Broad strokes here, of course, but for me the sentiment rings true. Unless I am really on the hunt for something specific and necessary, I get a lot of pleasure just browsing.

What scared me a little, however, was realizing (more fully, to be honest. don’t we all sort of know that much of our decision making is externally derived?) how many purchases are made because of carefully constructed subliminal messages. To elaborate, I was really stunned by this passage about pushing dated products and making the customer feel like they’ve discovered something truly special:

“The video-rental business made pennies on renting the latest releases but scored big time when it could get you to rent the old stuff–classics like North by Northwest or The Great Escape. Their ongoing dilemma was how to get what they called “basic inventory” out the door.

“We noticed that quite a few of the truly expert searchers among their clientele headed not for the new releases section but for the returns cart, the trolley where incoming videos go before they are filed. There’s no reason to attempt to alter that behavior–it actually saves some clerk a little labor, which is a good thing. We suggested spiking that return cart with a few classic films, particularly ones that had some connection to a new release. It worked.”

My sisters and I used to do that all the time! We were the trolls digging through the return cart at Blockbuster or asking the clerk to do it for us so we could get the latest and greatest. Then, we might stumble across something old, yet relevant, and think we made a great discovery. Psych!

What is truly revelatory here is discovering how many decisions you make aren’t really made by you, but by someone who wanted you to buy a specific thing or think a certain way. When do we guide our own buying behavior?

The book appeals to those in marketing and retail but it’s incredibly insightful for the everyday shopper. The book makes me more aware of tricks of the trade, but ironically, it makes me want to shop more! Or, more accurately, it makes me want to go into the shops to see these ideas and gimmicks in place: put products you want to push by a mirror because people are attracted to reflective surfaces; people tend to reach toward the right so put more expensive products on the right side of a display; create more waist-high surfaces so people can set down what they are holding and interact with the products and goods. It’s incredible how much thought and science goes into merchandizing and planning a store.

What are your thoughts here? Have you read this book or anything similar? He makes a lot of broad generalizations, especially when it comes to differences between men and women, but his anecdotal presentation of the information is insightful and illuminating.

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