When Geniuses Miss the Mark on Shopping

Paco Underhill is the subject of a new interview and it is interesting.  Somewhat reductionist at times, but interesting nonetheless.  There is much to be learned from Paco’s work and much a company can use. But there are also theoretical and observational gaps that could lead a company down a dangerous strategic path.

While I will be the first to say I admire the hell out of Paco Undehill’s work, I also think that many predictive elements proposed by a purely psychological methodology miss the mark.  Not by a little, but by a mile. Case in point, the predictions made in the interview about grocery shopping.  The example given is of Whole Foods and suggests that people are above all else mission-oriented, that mission being reduced to the procurement of calories and healthy diet. As such, the prediction goes, people will forego shopping in the store in favor of using a mobile app to select foods and schedule pick ups – drive up, pay, drive away with your goods.  The problem is that it doesn’t really address the underlying needs and beliefs people have when shopping for food, particularly at a place like Whole Foods. Not all groceries are the same.

Whole Foods is a place of experimentation and play.  It is a place people gather at to see (quite literally) other like-minded people. It is a public socio-political statement. It is a place to linger, to teach values to our children and a destination.  People need to see, touch and smell produce because it confirms notions of freshness, health and quality.  Letting another select and box these items is not necessarily desirable because of ideas we hold about pollution, health and trust. Will the predictions made in the article hold true in an Aldi? Probably. Granted, this is one example from the article, but to suggest in such sweeping statements that all retail will take a turn toward function ignores the symbolic richness and structural elements behind the shopping experience.

The point to this is not to diminish another researcher’s work and my sincerest apologies to anyone who would construe it that way.  No, the point is that without looking at the deeper symbolic processes and motivations behind shopping behavior, consumption and the use of retail environments leads to assumptions that a grounded in partial truths.  That can lead poor strategies and loss of revenue.  The introduction of online and mobile shopping have unquestionably changed the landscape.  Understanding the complex interactions between sales channels, culture and psychology will produce much better insights and strategies.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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1 Comment

  1. Could not agree more – we are exploring this now with consumers and while technology plays a vital role in the shopping experience, it’s about researching, inspiring, and motivating an eventual purchase which can occasionally be made via tech, but not always. Consumers will not trade off the in-store shopping experience in favor of convenience. Besides being hard-wired to hunt and gather, I wonder whether there is some meaning in shopping that just hasn’t been replaced yet…but might be, by another type of activity that provides value.

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