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Retail anthropologist

You can’t even go shopping now without being watched and studied. This term has turned up in several places recently, but in every case it can be traced back to the same retail consultancy firm in New York, Envirosell, so it’s probably a clever piece of PR rather than a genuine addition to the vocabulary. The founder of the firm, the self-styled retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, calls it the science of shopping, which just happens to be the subtitle of his recent book, Why We Buy. The idea is that observing shoppers as though they were members of an alien culture develops insights that can help stores persuade people to spend more. Simple things can pay dividends — display shirt and tie combinations, because men hate shopping and want it made as simple as possible; don’t put expensive merchandise just inside a shop doorway because this is where shoppers are adjusting to the ambience of the place and aren’t noticing things; place goods so shoppers have plenty of room to inspect them without being bumped by passers-by in the aisles; organise displays to take account of the way that people unconsciously navigate a store — in general respond to the psychology of the customer.

Paco Underhill, retail anthropologist and passionate shoppers’ advocate, gave me a withering look. Macy’s, the look said, wasn’t doing its job, and he was mad about it.

New York Times, May 1999

According to “retail anthropologists”, who base their findings on hours of videotapes of shoppers, the percentage of shoppers who buy some items if they pick up a basket: 75.

Independent on Sunday, July 1999

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Jul. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 31 July 1999.