Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.

This was one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the past few years. While it briefly touches on Web sites and Internet marketing, I felt there were a lot of crossover ideas for both on and off-line retail. It was amazing as methods of signage, store and product layout, dressing room decor, the impact of males shopping with or without females, and other elements that surround our shopping experience.

In one of the chapters, Underhill goes into detail about the aging Baby Boomer generation, and how retailers will be forced to change their marketing, packaging, sales techniques and methods of reaching this economically powerful group. He cites research that shows how vision weakens as we grow older.

“Human eyes begin to falter at about age forty, and even healthy ones are usually impaired by their sixties. With age, three main ocular events take place: The lens becomes more rigid and the muscles holding it weaken, meaning you can’t focus on small type; the cornea yellows, which changes how you perceive color, and less light reaches your retina, meaning the world looks a little dimmer than it once did. The issue of visual acuity, already a major one in the marketplace, will become even more critical-not just in some far-off future, but from this moment on.”

Newspapers and Text Size
Underhill goes on to show how newspapers have had endless user surveys, all of which have shown that readers are not happy with the small text size used in newspaper print, yet the established news organization refuse to change. Newspaper print uses body text of 9-point type, a typical paperback is in 11.75-point, and most readers prefer 12-point or larger. Any wonder newspaper subscriptions rates have never grown since the late 70’s? Giving users control of the text they see on the web page will become critical. However, I advocate designing pages with larger text from the beginning, rather than forcing people to search or hinder their progress.

Color Perception Changes
The yellowing of the cornea is something that was new to me, yet the implications are critical, as subtle color differences are not easily perceived. The difference between blue and green becomes difficult to perceive and everything tends to look yellow. Contrasting text and images on a web page is an important part of maintaining a friendly relationship with your users. Avoid text and images that cause users to make an effort to see and understand. Clear contrast will help navigation, comprehension and ease of use.

A fifty-year-old’s retinas allow about 1/4 less light than a twenty-year-old’s. This means that sites should not use darker colors if it intends to reach an older audience. A younger audience will be able to distinguish slight variations in color, and may be able to read that blue text on a black background, but forget trying to reach anyone other than that twenty-year-old audience. Older shoppers and web users prefer brighter, lighter sites that allow them to easily see the page and the graphic elements.

Final Recommendation
I highly recommend Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Even if you only focus on the internet, it is a study of human nature. Now I find that I can’t go into a store without evaluating how effective it has placed the signage or allows traffic flow. When you classify how people show, it falls under two categories, needs and wants. Shopping for needs is something that we all have to do. Shopping for wants is a social hobby. Both have the element of impulse buying, which drives our economy.

I do feel that people shop, ultimately, for discovery. I often compare my wife and her friends to war vets when they compare sale prices – hearing “Discount Outlet! Ten dollars” sounds vaugely like “Shrapnel wound! Italy!”

Finding something that you certainly didn’t intend to buy, but you become enraptured with the idea of having it. Buying it is just the formality, because once you’ve found it – it’s yours.