Most B2B marketers would be forgiven if they hadn’t read Paco Underhill’s classic Why We Buy. First published in 1999 and updated ten years later, this fascinating look at how we shop doesn’t seem to have much to do with those of us flogging their wares to bored executives. But if you give this book a read, I think you’ll find plenty to take back to Cube land.



Underhill is a student of the mechanics of shopping and this bit of the book is worth a careful read. It’s stunning that thousands of years after we dragged our first complaining bit of livestock to a crowded market, we still get things so very wrong. We still design stores that actually prevent us from buying things, signs we can’t or won’t read and merchandising that makes little sense. More surprising, at least to me, is how very, very little it takes to fix it. For example, by placing shopping baskets throughout a store instead of only at the entrance, or by having staff offer them to shoppers, Underhill demonstrates a stunningly obvious way to boost revenue per square foot.

He also explains why, despite interactive blinky displays inside the doors of most stores, people still wander aimlessly looking for their stuff. It seems there’s a landing zone. When we first enter a new space we keep moving forward. We don’t look left or right, we don’t admit we’re lost or new, we just trudge forward — past the signs, the creepy greeters, the shopping baskets and the carefully stacked special-of-the-day. All of that is invisible in the landing zone.

This brings me to the first B2B take-away: don’t book that overpriced booth just inside the doors at your next trade show. It may look like the most visible place on earth, but Underhill’s research suggests it’s probably the last place anyone will stop. Far better to be to the right and inside a little. Another nugget: human beings mostly look forward, rarely sideways unless they need something. So designing a booth that looks great head-on is missing the fact that visitors will see only about five percent of it as they approach, and unless there’s a reason to look to the side, they probably won’t. That’s why an end spot may be a good place to hang out at the next big event. Look for places where people will either decide they need direction or where they will have time to kill. That spot by the ladies room just keeps looking better, doesn’t it?

One other disconnect between shoppers and retailers that B2B types can learn from is the difference between a boardroom or a lab and a busy store. “…people in stores or restaurants or banks are almost never still; they’re moving from one place to another. And they’re not intent on looking at signs or flat screens – in fact they’re usually doing something else entirely…” So that lovely help screen that looks so great in your QA lab, may not be so helpful on a loud, brightly lit factory floor. And your interactive website may be a bit difficult to see on a smartphone in a sunny atrium.

Underhill also cites the disconnect between consumers and the people who design packages. “About one-fifth of all shoppers actually see the average product on a supermarket shelf. There’s a reliable zone in which shoppers will probably see merchandise. It goes from slightly above eye level to just about knee level.” Which explains a lot about why I keep forgetting to buy coffee filters. But it doesn’t explain why, armed with decades of data on this stuff, package designers don’t heed Underhill’s advice: “Every label, every box, every container should be designed as though it will be seen from a disadvantageous perspective.”

Along with Tom Peters and Roger Martin at the Rotman School of Management, Underhill suggests that design is a core competency many companies continue to overlook. Not just in the way stores are laid out or packaging is designed, but also in accommodating demographic differences. As the population ages, it makes sense to make the text on labels larger, but having had to ask the nearest child to read a package for me just last week, I can promise you that isn’t happening. And that’s because very few of the spreadsheet-clutching MBAs who run our retail organizations actually shop in them and certainly they never consider design to be a competitive advantage but rather a frilly nuisance indulged only by the luxury brands.

In fact, Underhill pegs design as one of his Big Three for retailers. Along with merchandising and operations design must exist in some sort of balance for retailers to succeed. Any shortfall in one unfairly burdens the other two and throws the whole thing out of whack; conversely, doing any one of them well, strengthens the others. He calls this “the geometry that rules the shopping universe”. I think it’s the geometry of most marketing, and this chapter is worth reading over and over again for the lessons it offers in corporate interdependencies and the cost of ignoring the knock-on effects of our decisions.

The bit that’s the most fun is where we go deeper into the differences among shoppers, chiefly between men and women. Anyone who’s shopped with men (or teenage boys, for that matter) can attest to the fact that men loathe shopping and treat the whole thing like some kind of extreme sport where the goal is to get in, get out and get most of what you came for. Apparently they don’t make lists. The thing to note here, despite the differences in how men and women shop, is that the gap is closing. More women are hanging around the Home Depot and more men are trying to decipher children’s clothing sizes. The obvious takeaway for B2B marketers is the stark reminder that the person who is buying is very likely not to be the person who is using, and they are not necessarily all that well educated about your products and they certainly have other things they want to be doing than buying stuff from you. So like retailers we need to make our customers’ buying processes fast, simple and comfortable. Happily, there are two areas where we can learn from our friends at the mall: deal with the distractors and let your customers touch and feel before they buy.

There is nothing quite like negotiating with grumpy three-year-old who is entrenched in front of the eye-level candy in the supermarket. And not much kills the endorphins from a truly legendary sale rack score faster than a husband slumped glumly on the “man couch” These are distractors. They are the people who orbit the buying process and offer little in the way of useful help while pulling the buyer’s focus relentlessly away from the task at hand. I think there are plenty of B2B distractors and we should explore them in a future blog.

He also provides a terrific commentary on the very human need to touch, feel and try things out before we’re willing to commit to them. Read Chapter 12 if you’re debating about whether or not to send out free trials to your customers. Why not drop a sample of your new paper, coffee or gift card to some of your favourite G-Spotters or the F-Word?

Three other things B2B marketers can take away from this book:

  • Acknowledge that customer perception and reality rarely match, which for us stresses the need to manage expectations around delivery times and communicate our processes clearly.
  • Understand the often sad tradeoffs between customer convenience and operational security and expedience.
  • Always look for adjacencies in our product sets – kind of like bookstores selling jewellery and Apple stores selling accessories.

If you’re strapped for time, stop after Section IV. You’ll miss the self-serving chapter about Underhill’s network of offices and an inexplicable, almost incoherent rant about Internet shopping. You will also miss a fascinating look at how shopping differs (or doesn’t) around the world, which is worth a look if you are struggling with new international markets.

This book definitely deserves a spot on your bookshelf and is recommended reading if you are considering any kind of retail adventure. Perhaps the next edition will feature some info on people buying business products at retail.