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Dealers- All Retailers… This is a MUST READ. An Anthropological Expedition into Consumer Behavior: A Review of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" by Paco Underhill

August 10, 2023

Donna M. Skolnick

Donna M. Skolnick

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Dealers… This is a MUST READ.

An Anthropological Expedition into Consumer Behavior: A Review of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" by Paco Underhill

I wrote this article to help out fellow sales people, Dealers etc. When I find a good book, I like to share. This is a well written, timeless read about retail shoppers. This article, is just my take on some of the highlights. I hope you enjoy,

In "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," Paco Underhill takes readers on a journey into the intricate world of consumer behavior, providing a unique perspective that merges anthropology with the retail landscape. Published in 1999, this groundbreaking book offers a comprehensive analysis of how shoppers interact with their environment and make purchasing decisions. Underhill's anthropological approach, wherein researchers shadow shoppers in stores, uncovers invaluable insights that continue to shape the retail industry.

Many business owners have new employees read this book to gain a better understanding of retail and retail shoppers. At the time of the writing of this blog post, I found the book on Amazon for $10. Love the book and recommend it to those starting a career in retail. It’s a quick read and I found it to be insightful.

Merging Anthropology and Retail

Paco Underhill's pioneering work introduces an unconventional approach to understanding shopping behavior. By applying anthropological methodologies to the retail environment, Underhill transcends traditional consumer studies. His research involves ethnographic observation and participation, allowing him to view shopping through a cultural lens. Through his findings, Underhill explores the subtle nuances that impact shopping experiences, ultimately offering retailers invaluable insights into optimizing store layouts, product placements, and customer interactions.

The Anthropological Lens: Following Shoppers in Their Natural Habitat

Underhill's approach involves direct observation and participant engagement within retail spaces. This methodology enables researchers to witness shoppers' actions, emotions, and decision-making processes in real time. Unlike conventional consumer research, which often relies on surveys and focus groups, Underhill's anthropological lens captures unfiltered behaviors and preferences. This approach provides a holistic understanding of the shopper's journey, encompassing elements such as store layout, product placement, signage, and interaction with staff.

In-Store Dynamics: A Microcosm of Consumer Behavior

The book delves into the intricacies of store design, highlighting the impact of factors such as spatial configuration and product arrangement. Through meticulous observation, Underhill unveils how store layouts influence traffic flow and consumer decision-making. For instance, the positioning of popular items at the back of the store encourages shoppers to traverse the entire space, increasing exposure to other products along the way. This strategy is supported by research indicating that longer exposure to products often results in increased purchases.

Consumer Psychology and Decision-Making

A significant aspect of "Why We Buy" is the exploration of consumer psychology and the cognitive processes that guide purchasing decisions. Underhill's observations underscore the role of emotions and subconscious triggers in driving choices. He reveals that sensory elements, such as lighting, music, and scent, evoke emotions that impact shopper behavior. This aligns with studies demonstrating that sensory stimuli influence emotions and subsequently shape consumer preferences.

The Human Factor: Interaction and Engagement

Underhill emphasizes the importance of interpersonal interactions in the retail setting. By observing shopper-staff interactions, he uncovers the correlation between customer service and purchasing behavior. Friendly and knowledgeable staff can create positive shopping experiences, enhancing customer loyalty and increasing the likelihood of return visits. Additionally, the book highlights the significance of touch and physical interaction with products in the decision-making process.

Evolving Retail Landscape: Contemporary Relevance

Two decades after its publication, "Why We Buy" remains remarkably pertinent in an era of evolving retail dynamics. The advent of e-commerce has transformed the way consumers shop, yet many of the principles outlined by Underhill hold true in both physical and digital retail spaces. For instance, the concept of optimizing the online shopping journey by creating user-friendly interfaces and employing persuasive design techniques mirrors the book's insights into physical store layouts.

Sensory marketing is a strategy that engages consumers' senses to create memorable and impactful experiences. By appealing to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, brands can establish strong emotional connections with their customers. Here are some examples of sensory marketing:


Visual Merchandising: Retail stores carefully arrange products to create visually appealing displays that catch the customers' attention and encourage exploration.

Color Psychology: Brands use specific colors to evoke emotions and influence purchasing decisions. For example, red is often associated with excitement and urgency, while blue conveys trust and calmness.


In-Store Music: Retailers play background music that aligns with their brand identity and the mood they want to evoke. Fast-paced music can energize shoppers, while slow melodies create a more relaxed atmosphere.

Brand Jingles: Recognizable and memorable brand jingles or tunes create an auditory association with the brand. Think of the Intel jingle or the McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" jingle.


Product Interaction: Brands design products with textures that stimulate the sense of touch, such as the soft touch of high-quality fabrics or the ergonomic grip of a well-designed gadget.

Testers and Samples: Providing customers with the opportunity to physically interact with products through testers or samples encourages tactile engagement.


Sampling: Food and beverage brands often offer free samples to let customers taste their products before making a purchase. This strategy is common in grocery stores and at food festivals.

Scented Packaging: Some brands infuse packaging with subtle flavors or scents, enhancing the overall sensory experience. For example, tea brands might use scented packaging to convey the aroma of the tea inside.


Scent Branding: Brands develop signature scents that customers associate with their products or stores. This could be a specific fragrance in a clothing store or the scent of a particular hotel chain.

Ambient Scents: Businesses use pleasant scents in their physical spaces to create a welcoming and comfortable environment. For instance, hotels often use scents in their lobbies to leave a lasting impression.

Multisensory Experiences:

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR): These technologies combine visual and auditory cues to create immersive experiences. Brands use them for interactive product demonstrations or virtual store tours.

Pop-Up Events: Temporary, multisensory installations or events provide a unique space for brands to engage customers with various sensory elements, fostering deeper connections.

Interactive Packaging:

Packaging that engages multiple senses, such as textured surfaces, built-in sound modules, or scented materials, can enhance the perception of a product and make it more memorable.

Sensory marketing aims to tap into customers' emotions and memories by creating holistic experiences that go beyond mere product features. By immersing customers in a multisensory environment, brands can foster loyalty and drive purchasing decisions through emotional connections.

Scent branding, also known as olfactory branding or aroma marketing, involves using specific scents to create a distinctive and memorable identity for a brand or business. Here are some examples of how scent branding is used:

Abercrombie & Fitch:

The clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is well-known for its strong scent branding strategy. When customers enter their stores, they are greeted with a signature scent that is diffused throughout the store. This scent, often described as a mix of cologne and other fragrances, is intended to create a particular atmosphere and evoke emotions associated with their brand.

Singapore Airlines:

Singapore Airlines has carefully curated a signature scent, called "Stefan Floridian Waters," that is used throughout their planes and lounges. The scent is designed to provide a sense of calm and relaxation, enhancing the overall flying experience for passengers.


The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls wafting through shopping malls is a result of Cinnabon's scent branding. The enticing scent draws customers into their stores and creates a strong association between the smell and their delicious treats.

Hollister Co.:

Similar to Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister Co. uses scent branding to create a specific ambiance in their stores. The fragrance used is intended to evoke a Southern California beach vibe, enhancing the shopping experience for their target demographic.

Lush Cosmetics:

Lush stores are known for their strong, natural scents emanating from their handmade cosmetic products. The distinct smells contribute to the immersive shopping experience and align with their brand's emphasis on freshness and natural ingredients.

Scent branding aims to establish a strong emotional connection with customers and reinforce brand identity. The right scent can trigger memories, enhance the perception of products and services, and create a unique and memorable experience that sets a brand apart from its competitors.

A Window into Consumer Behavior

In "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," Paco Underhill showcases the transformative power of merging anthropology with the retail landscape. Through firsthand observations and participatory research, Underhill peels back the layers of consumer behavior, revealing how the interplay of psychology, emotions, and environment shapes shopping experiences. His anthropological lens provides a richer perspective that continues to resonate in an ever-evolving retail landscape.

Impact and Future Implications

Paco Underhill's book has left an indelible mark on the field of consumer behavior and retail strategy. By merging anthropology and retail, "Why We Buy" encourages a more holistic understanding of shopper behavior. Its influence is evident in the increasing emphasis on experiential retail, where businesses create immersive environments to engage all the senses. Moreover, Underhill's work has contributed to a deeper appreciation of the role emotions play in purchasing decisions, leading to the development of emotionally intelligent marketing strategies.

Retail and consumer motivations is a large area of study. As shown is this short blog article, there are many factors that should be considered when displaying in your retail store, sensory, anthropology, smell, taste, touch etc…

Dealers and retailers may want to spend some time shopping in a mall at some of these stores mentioned. If it were me, I’d bring a notepad and take copious notes and learn from the experience. Retail is far more than just setting up displays, crossing your fingers and hoping consumers will buy.

As we conclude our anthropological expedition into consumer behavior and the secrets behind shopping, Casa Bella Outdoor Kitchen Cabinetry stands as a testament to the power of design in influencing our choices. Our premium cabinetry not only embodies the science of aesthetics but also offers unmatched functionality. To explore how Casa Bella Outdoor Kitchen Cabinetry can transform your retail space or enhance your customer experience, please visit our website at www.casabellaoutdoor.com or contact us at 973-520-7114. Join us in the journey of shaping consumer preferences and making lasting impressions through thoughtful design. Casa Bella Outdoor Kitchen Cabinetry is your partner in creating retail environments that engage, inspire, and leave a lasting impact.

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Book, "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping," Paco Underhill

Hultén, B., Broweus, N., & Dijk, M. V. (2009). Sensory Marketing: A Literature Review. Journal of Business Research, 63(11), 1200-1212.

Kim, Y. K., Kim, H. B., & An, M. H. (2019). The Effects of Employees' Empathic Abilities and Service Attitudes on Customers' Emotional Responses and Satisfaction. Journal of Service Management, 30(5), 615-639.

Smith, J. D., & Wolf, J. R. (2002). The effects of store environment on shopping behaviors: A critical review. Advances in Consumer Research, 29, 193-198.

Anthropology, Consumer Behavior, Retail Strategy, Shopping Experience, Retail Psychology, Retail Design, Customer Interaction, Consumer Psychology,Emotional Marketing, E-commerce Trends, Store Layout, Retail Anthropology, Experiential Retail, Shopper Insights, Customer Engagement, Retail Evolution, Consumer Decision-Making, Sensory Marketing, User Experience, Retail Innovations, outdoor space, outdoor kitchens

Follow us on Instagram for more blog articles @CasaBella_Outdoor

Visit us at www.CasaBellaOutdoor.com

Blog at www.CasaBellaOutdoor.com/blog