The Science of Shopping and the Trade Show Environment

Shopping is a science according to “retail anthropologist” Paco Underhill. The fact that “certain physical and anatomical abilities, tendencies, limitations, and needs are common to all people” means that selling environments, including trade shows, can and should be designed to accommodate buying behaviors. In his groundbreaking book, “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” Underhill explains the psychology of buying. Many of the “absolute basics” that he reveals in the decade-old book are still applicable for event organizers, exhibitors and attendees today.

The transition zone. Underhill believes that the portion of the environment just inside the entrance is the place that visitors make decisions about what to do and where to go. They typically pay little attention to signage. “At trade shows,” he writes, “the booths just inside the door may seem most desirable, but they’re pretty bad locations.” His advice is to create a “speed bump” just inside the door—something that will help visitors transition such as a display that conveys the mental message, “pause a second to look at what you’re walking in on.”

Care with chairs. One of the most important things in a retail environment is seating. “In the majority of stores, sales would instantly be increased by the addition of one chair. I would remove a display if it meant creating space for a chair. I’d rip out a fixture. I’d kill a mannequin. A chair says: we care,” says Underhill. The same philosophy can be applied to the exhibit booth. When the booth is large enough, a comfortable and inviting seating area is a great way to have an extended conversation with a valued prospect.

The right choice. Once people enter a retail environment, they invariably drift toward the right. This occurs because the majority of the population is right-handed and/or conditioned to access objects to the right. For exhibitors, the optimal booth space would be to the right of the entrance area. Inside the booth, the most important information, people, messages, for example, should be oriented towards the visitor’s right as they enter the space.

Seeing, hearing, touching. What do shoppers love? It’s simple says Underhill—touching, discovery, talking, and recognition. “The most powerful inducement to shopping, he says, is the “opportunity to touch, try, taste, smell and otherwise explore the world of desirable objects.” Trade shows are perfect environments for testing products first hand, learning new information, engaging with exhibitors and other attendees, and being recognized by colleagues and suppliers. Manipulating the exhibit environment to take advantages of these desires helps exhibitors control the purchasing experience.

The human interaction. People are everything in a retail environment and on the trade show floor. The quality of the human interaction trumps nearly every other aspect of the attendee experience including the exhibit design, signage, and giveaways. Exhibit industry research consistently points to the importance of the one-to-one engagement that occurs between booth staff and attendees. Greeting attendees as they enter the booth, attending to them immediately, and having the information they need is critical to creating the bond that is necessary to advance the sale.

Once these basic human tendencies are addressed, much more detailed measures of behavior using RFID and other tracking technologies can greatly enhance the trade show attendees’ experience and the exhibitors’ ROI.