The Grocery Stores of the Future Should Do Your Shopping For You

The new science of retail: Why dads give in too easily at grocery stores, why recessions lead to messy aisles, and why Whole Foods should be more like CVS.
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Paco Underhill is an environmental psychologist and the author of What Women Want. He is an expert in how we think about shopping, global consumer trends, and the "ergonomic" layout of retail stores.

For example, one of his most famous theories is the butt-brush. "We are a posterially-sensitve species," he told me. "The more likely we are to be brushed, the less likely we are to convert from watcher to buyer." This makes it important for stores to organize themselves in a manner that gives shoppers a small sense of privacy and space. Wide aisles help. So do varied aisle designs and sizes, which encourage people to slow down and stop in places where they feel like they have a bit of privacy.

We spoke recently about why dads give in too easily at grocery stores, why recessions lead to messy aisles, and why Whole Foods should be more like CVS.

What is the most surprising way the recession has changed shopping?

Recessions make stores messy. People are trading out as they're shopping. When they put something in the basket, they take something out of the basket, because they can't afford to buy too much. As a result, you have more things out of place. This makes the store messy, and you need more workers on the floor to clean it up.

Some people predict that the Internet is going to replace the retail store. It's already killed Borders. What impact could it have on, say, buying a bed or a toaster?

Buying an electronic appliance generally involves three visits, or missions. A scouting mission, a narrowing mission, and a purchasing mission. Of those three missions, at least one or two might be happening online, whereas it previously would be happening in store. The role of the Internet is an information-gathering -- scouting and narrowing -- vehicle. It doesn't mean less buying. It means less day-to-day traffic.

What's a cool way that retail stores can use the power of the Internet to make us buy more stuff?

Let's say you are Whole Foods. Most of your sales aren't impulse purchases. You have routine shoppers. There should be a phone app that pings the customer -- "Here's your shopping list" -- and lets the customer ping the store -- "I'd like to drop by at one tomorrow." Now instead of browse and shop, you just drive up to a window, like at a fast food restaurant or pharmaceutical counter, and your Whole Foods order has been filled. So Whole Foods shops for you. This isn't about the Internet, but we should also think about return-customers getting an express check-out lane. You would reward the best customers not just with financial savings, but also with time savings.

What company is doing retail the best?

The best 21st century merchants are not merchants. They're evangelical preachers. We visit an Apple store as a temple of technology and design. Apple has succeeded in getting us to buy into its religion. Trader Joe's is another good preacher. People believe in the store. It's friendly and cheap. The Container Store is the religion of anal-compulsive. Zara's represents the ability to be fashionable at a fast fashion price. Those are examples of merchants that are doing extremely well, and they're doing it with a mixture of customer service, outreach, and luck.

Tell me a company overseas who is getting retail stores right.

There is a major Japanese department store that has a club room inside the store. There are three ways to access the club. First, you have the store's branded credit card. Second, you spend a certain amount of money at the store. Third, you own a minimum number of shares in the publicly traded stock in that company. The club isn't an empty perk. It's a place you can park your husband, have your own fashion show, and feed you kid in a quiet place. That is a different way of rewarding your best customer. I don't see a American merchant who has borrowed it.

You've written quite a bit about the difference between male and female approaches to shopping. Indeed, your butt-brush theory relies on a kind of evolutionary instinct we have of being ambushed. What's the easiest way to understand the difference between men and women as shoppers?

Men were programmed to be hunters. They walk into a forest and want to kill something quickly. Women are programmed to be gatherers. They get more pleasure out of the act of looking. Your wife can have a wonderful time buying nothing. If you're not successful on your mission, you have failed.

Kids also have different effects on male and female shopping. Now some of these gender norms are changing, but they largely still hold. Your wife has a much better history of saying no to the kids if she has taken your kids shopping more than you have. She's used to saying no to Cocoa Pops. Dads tend to have less experience. They want to show that they are magnanimous. Dads tend say yes.