As the Christmas shopping season approaches, retailers are wishing
they could get inside consumers’ heads as well as their wallets.
Divining finicky shoppers’ needs and wants is the key to winning
customers, and the delicate science of selling has never been more
Retailers realize that product placement must
appeal to various age groups as well as different genders.
“Retailers live on a razor thin margin, and it’s extremely
tough to survive in retail,” said Dr. Leigh McAlister, marketing
professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “These guys
are not manipulative puppet-masters behind the scenesthey
don’t have that luxury. They have their eyes wide-open, searching
for what the consumer really wants. And the consumer is very savvy.”
Discerning what the customer desires is so important, in fact,
that the study of human behavior has become almost as crucial as
the analysis of profit margins and gross sales. Although humans
can be fickle creatures, certain general behavior patterns seem
to emerge when people set out to shop.
“When we look at gender differences in shopping behavior,
we see that men, in general, spend less time in a store,”
said Dr. Rajagopal Raghunathan, marketing professor at The University
of Texas at Austin. “They make up their minds what they want
ahead of time, go in, grab it and get out quickly.”
Conversely, women tend to be much less goal-directed and often
go shopping simply to enjoy the overall sensory experience and to
gather information that may be used at a later date.
“A woman may linger for quite a while and sample things,
try things on, investigate new brands without even intending to
buy anything during that visit,” said Raghunathan. “They’re
experimenting, and they’re very adept information-gatherers.”
Men, according to research and observations by marketers and urban
anthropologists, also seem to be less capable of taking in complicated
information and processing it rapidly. For example, if they encounter
a large display of pants but there are no color-coordinated shirt
displays right alongside, they will simply buy a pair of pants and
leave the store without searching for a shirt. A woman will be more
likely to sweep the entire area of men’s clothing, ponder
numerous shirt choices and buy at least one appropriate shirt.
In a retail establishment such as Banana Republic, men’s
accessories like socks are likely to be placed near the checkout
counter. For men these sorts of items are impulse buys and are utilitarian
goods, according to Raghunathan. They do not require extensive deliberation
and can be grabbed at the last moment.
The women’s socks, however, are more likely to be placed
by the dressing room or alongside pants and shirts because a woman
may spend the same amount of time sampling and selecting them as
she would a pair of shorts.
The observant retailer also realizes that product placement in
the store must appeal to different age groups as well as different
“Parents are very susceptible to their children’s influence,”
said Raghunathan. “If retailers place candy and toys at a
child’s eye level, the child will nag, and the parent is very
likely to concede and buy the product.”
Drugstores, in catering to senior citizens, must accommodate the
physical limitations of the elderly by placing products likely to
be bought by that demographic in reachable range and making aisles
wide enough for a person with a walker to comfortably navigate.
Most consumers are willing to spend more time
selecting and more money on an item in the hedonic category
than on a utilitarian item. Justin (left) and her mother Beth
Hearne browse clothing racks at The Cadeau on Guadalupe Street
in Austin, Texas.
“Retired individuals may have a greater availability of time
for shopping,” said Dr. Linda Golden, marketing professor
at The University of Texas at Austin. “And they may prefer
to shop at particular times of day, which is something a retailer
would want to be aware of when offering sales on items targeted
to this group. They tend to be more price-conscious because many
are on fixed incomes and are usually pretty responsive to coupons
With such a profusion of demographics data available, one would
assume that every retailer could reduce product placement and store
layout down to a formula and please every customer every time. When
it comes to consumer behavior, however, demographics analysis is
only the tip of the iceberg and not the goose that laid the golden
Even a man can be made to linger longingly in a storeif he’s
a gadget enthusiast and the store happens to hold the latest in
plasma TVs and pocket PCs.
“How a consumer behaves, what they purchase, how long they
dwell in a store has a lot to do with how much that person is involved
in a product category,” said Golden. “The more involved
they are, the more likely they are to be willing to take the time
to micro-process attributes of an item in that category.”
A consumer will also behave differently when buying a utilitarian
product as opposed to a hedonic product. Hedonic itemswhich
might be anything from Godiva chocolates for one person to Bang
Olufsen speakers for anotherare goods that have an emotional
pull and tend to appeal to the buyer’s senses. They are aesthetically
pleasing and probably are seen more as a luxury and a treat than
Utilitarian products such as paper towels or pain relievers tend
to be items on which a buyer does not care to lavish a great deal
of money and thought.
“As far as how functional, utilitarian items are arranged
in stores, you’re normally made to go to the back of the store
for something like toothpaste or aspirin,” said Dr. Patricia
Stout, advertising professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
“You’re in the store because you need a pain reliever
and you’re going to find it, wherever it is. Impulse items
like nail polish or lip gloss are up front because you may require
a little more tempting to spend money on those.”
Retail establishments often advertise that their goods appeal to
hedonic impulses by the way in which the actual store is physically
“packaged.” A Victoria’s Secret is lushly pink,
silky, frilly and evocative of a very feminine French boudoir, which
may or may not offer information as to the actual quality of the
lingerie. The appeal is to the senses and to the image that the
consumer hopes to project after purchasing the goods.
“With hedonic items, we think more about the brand and are
willing to shell out more money and spend more time choosing them,”
items such as fine chocolates appeal to the senses and may
have an emotional pull for the shopper.
Although the study of online shopping and online advertising is
still in its infant stages, a reasonable conclusion may be that
retail outlets have a slight edge over product Web sites when it
comes to purchase of hedonic products, said Raghunathan.
Most individuals seem to have much stronger feelings and ties to
things that they can touch and personally, physically select. The
failure of online grocery shopping, according to Raghunathan, is
a perfect example of the lure of a tactile, sensual shopping experience.
Buying groceries online and having them delivered would seem to
be a godsend for over-scheduled families, but researchers found
that individuals prefer to hand-select even their tomato sauce and
In addition to the intimate contact with a product, the lighting,
music and pleasant aromas that may greet a customer at a retail
outlet are likely to aid in the seduction.
“If you’re looking for a purely utilitarian product
like diapers, for example,” said Raghunathan, “You can
go online and just do a search for the best price. You know precisely
what you want, the product is pretty much generic and you don’t
mind ordering online. When there needs to be an appeal to the affect
and the senses, as well as social interaction, the online experience
is pretty impoverished.”
Impoverished or not, many economists and marketing gurus predict
a rosy season for online shopping. And strong buying at retail outlets
Even with talk of war and layoffs and a “soft economy,”
certain human impulsessuch as the need to express regard for
others with special tokensremain constant. The holidays are
about tradition and giving, and perhaps it would assuage retailers’
worries some to recall a hackneyed cliché which defies market
researchwhen the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.