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To Win at Retail, You Have to Understand Social Change

Just completed a complete store redesign, visual merchandising overhaul or app update? Great. It’s time to start all over again.

With consumers shopping 24 hours a day and tech companies churning out new operating systems around the clock, stores have to be dynamic and flexible.

“Retail is one of the fundamental dipsticks of social change, and social change is in a state of acceleration and you see it from Wall street to Main Street,” said Paco Underhill, founder of consumer behavior consultancy Envirosell. “Shopping will change more in the next five years than it did in the previous 100.”

In his Science of Shopping events, Underhill advises retail executives on a wide array of ways in which they need to reassess their businesses if they’ll have any hope of keeping up with the moving target that is today’s customer. In February, he’ll partner with LIM College for an event that highlights how stores need to adapt right now. And it starts, he said, with women, wealth and the web.


Marketers are lagging behind when it comes to 50 percent of the planet. With ad agencies and retailers often run by men, they’re still learning how to cater to women whose status in society has undergone a huge evolution.

No longer just the key demographic for dishwashing liquid and mascara, women are now in the market for pretty much anything a man is—but that doesn’t mean you should talk to her like a man.

Using the example of consumer electronics, Underhill said while guys might geek out over a list of technical attributes, that’s not what’s going to close the sale for most women. “They’re buying based on the impact on their lives not tech specs,” he said. “Selling to women is about what the capabilities are and aligning those with her lifestyle.”

And when considering how she lives, retailers must reevaluate the very ways in which their stores operate. Consider the life of a working mom. There’s no more time-strapped creature on the planet. She holds the family together and its purse strings. But too often, Underhill said, stores are not designed with her in mind.

“Most parking lots tend to be passive rather than active and in other parts of the world they’re more dynamic,” he said. “The idea of getting you in and out quickly isn’t just about the store.”

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And it seems some retailers have finally gotten that memo. Nordstrom is offering 24/7 curb-side pickup this holiday so no one has an excuse for showing up to any festive gatherings empty handed. Similarly, Walmart has created an express lane for easy in-store returns that is tied to the big-box chain’s app so shoppers can start the return process before even entering the premises.

[Read more about marketing to women: Luxury Retail is Tapping Into a New Secret Weapon to Defeat Amazon: Women]


Retailers are also living in a bygone era when it comes to another population as well.

Once upon a time, wealthy consumers came from families who had had serious money for generations. That began to fall away in the mid 90s with the rise of more self-made men and women, Underhill said. And with them came a new reality.

“Now, more than 80 percent of global wealth is in the hands of people who earned it in their lifetimes,” he said, adding there’s a good chance this new consumer isn’t as well versed in the finer things. “It challenges us to understand that to make the sale, we have to provide an education.”

The biggest lesson for some will be why goods that look similar at first glance have wildly different price tags. It’s a particular challenge for the U.S. given how price sensitive consumers are today, not to mention how little time retailers have to convey brand and product messaging to on-the-go shoppers.

[Read more about educating consumers: Premium Fibers Defy the Race to the Bottom]

That’s where the Internet comes in. Underhill advises merchants to remember how much “preshopping” happens online and to use it to their advantage. On their sites, stores can tout product attributes in a more detailed way than they can in the store, he said. But once a consumer is in those four walls, salespeople must be ready to encourage shoppers to employ all of their senses so they get a better understanding of the role that things like fabrication and construction play in the look, feel and longevity of the garments.

The Web

Another way in which stores need to catch up is by embracing technology—specifically mobile devices. Rather than fighting against them for fear customers are doing things like they won’t like, like price shopping, Underhill said more stores must find ways to use them to their advantage.

“The phone as everyone’s personal shopping system is here to stay for the foreseeable future and probably going to get more sophisticated. Accepting that fact is critical,” he said.

While stores are beefing up their apps to help position them as the go-to location on the web for product information, deals and loyalty rewards, Underhill said retailers need to look around for additional opportunities to jump into consumers’ online lives.

“People are going into the dressing room and taking selfies or using FaceTime to generate consensus from other people,” he said. “So maybe put your logo up on the walls as a bit of guerilla marketing.”

And since your shopper lives online, your sales help should too, he said. While a lot of stores are trying mobile checkout via handheld devises, that’s just the start.

For instance, Saks Fifth Avenue is encouraging its sales help to get social, providing them with their own digital storefronts through which they can interact with their clients online.

Like everything, Underhill said, retail is in a state of constant flux so store executives can’t get complacent about any aspect of the business. “If we think about what made a good store in 2000,” he said, “and what makes a good store in 2017, it is about change.”

Register for the Science of Shopping with Paco Underhill at LIM College on February 22 at here.