Someone once called Paco Underhill the Margaret Mead of shopping. That’s because the founder, CEO and president of Envirosell has spent more than 25 years studying the behavior of consumers and helping companies understand them and how they shop. Underhill, a regular contributor to PBS and the BBC, is the author of the worldwide best-sellers “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” and “Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping.” As the average consumer gears up to buy 23 Christmas gifts this shopping season, I talked to Underhill on Wednesday, Dec. 5, by telephone from his offices in New York:
Q: When someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
A: I am the chief executive officer of a research and consulting firm that looks at the interaction between people and spaces, people and products and people and places. My second job is writing international best-selling books. And my third job is doing motivational speaking.
Q: You have made your name by studying consumers and their behavior. It’s almost like you’ve studied them as though they are a unique tribe in their own environment? How did you approach that?
A: I am an observational researcher. Our work is based on the act of physically watching people as they move and interact. Over a typical year, we follow through a store, a bank, a museum, a train station, an airport, a hospital somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 people. We follow them anonymously, meaning that we aren’t interested in what their names are or where they come from. We categorize them based on the (demographic) group and their approximate age and dress. We are not particularly interested in the actions of an individual but we are interested in establishing patterns.
Q: Is their any single most important thing that you’ve discovered about consumer behavior over the last 25 years?
A: I think we can divide stuff into what are the biological constants and the things that are changing. The biological constants govern the things that are driven by us being right-handed, or that our eyes age in a very predictable manner, or that there are some basic ergometrics, or human measurements, that factor into how we interact with stuff. Those are the biological constants -- and then there are things that change.
Q: How has the consumer changed most dramatically in the last 25 years?