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Retail expert Paco Underhill throws light on consumer buying behaviour

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Retail expert Paco Underhill throws light on consumer buying behaviour

Paco Underhill, perhaps the only retail anthropologist in the world and author of two defining bestsellers on retailing and the mall culture – Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and Call of the Mall – held centre-stage at the CII Retail 2005 conference on July 14 in Kolkata.

Underhill is also the CEO and co-founder of Envirosell, a leading research and consulting agency for retail and large space environments, with a clientele that includes Saks Fifth Avenue, Gap, Hallmark, the US Postal Service and Starbucks.

Underhill introduced himself as a ‘urban geographer’ and went on to provide interesting, often humorous insights on consumer buying behaviour. He also underlined the changing behavioural patterns, not just with regard to buying, but even in the attitudes towards technological developments, buying pre-used vehicles, and even fundamentals such as meals and budgetary allocations of families.

He touched on the challenges facing retailers today – both in the First World and Emerging Markets scenario – such as the marginalisation of the shopping cart, deep discounting, and window shoppers to name a few, and advocated that the thrust should be on finding ways to get beyond price and focus on ‘trading-up’ and imparting education to the customers on quality.

“The health of a mall is about programming, progressive design, merchant education and owning the complete experience,” observed Underhill. “Owning malls is not just about real estate and collecting rent, it’s about making a transformation from a landlord to a place-maker,” he pointed out.

Underhill then dwelt at length on how the customers’ shopping experience can be conditioned by the design of the space in terms of layout, human traffic flow, creation of clear zones, merchandising and POP interventions. “More is not always better,” he cautioned, coming out strongly against signage clutter.

Underhill’s presentation was preceded by an interesting overview of the Indian consumers –urban and rural – by Rama Bijapurkar, marketing consultant. According to her, Indian consumers suffered more from the fear of spending rather than the guilt of spending. In her view, there should not exist any ‘isms’ or ideologies in consumption – ‘Enjoy, do not get enslaved’ is her advice to the consumers.

Earlier, in the inaugural session Sanjeev Goenka, past President of CII, delivered the key note address, stressing on the scope of organised retailing and the factors that could be the driving force for growth in retail business in this region – namely, recognition of retail as an organised industry, abolition of octroi and entry tax, and rationalisation of stamp duties.

Kurush Grant, Chairman, Services Sector Sub-Committee of the CII, and Kishore Biyani, Chairman, CII National Committee on Retailing, also addressed the gathering.


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