colette shopping bag by Karl Hab, on Flickr

I’ve just finished reading Paco Underhill’s book Why we buy: the science of shopping, which was recommended during Rachel Van Riel’s talk at the CoFHE conference earlier this year. It’s a fascinating book for anyone interested in marketing, retail or human behaviour. The version I read was the 2000 edition so there have obviously been more developments in the way we shop since then (in one chapter he talks about the futuristic way we may scan our own shopping in at the supermarket!), but a lot of the principles discussed I imagine remain. This is of particular importance now that we are experiencing the “consumer generation”

The main points I took from the book include the following (many of which are common sense but rarely considered):

  • The transition zone – first few metres of a store require people to adjust to the lighting, temperature and other environmental factors and we therefore do not tend to notice much in this area
  • Product placement is crucial – the area of the store it is located in, the adjacencies (e.g. Charcoal near BBQs), and the way it is displayed on the shelf (also the shelf level bearing in mind potential consumers – lower for children, not too high or too low for elderly)
  • Flow of traffic can affect sales – queues may restrict browsing if there is little room, as may high traffic areas or smaller areas (due to a problem Underhill describes as “butt brushing” – being knocked into from behind, which is especially off putting for females)
  • People will buy more if they can carry it around the store more easily and especially if their hands are free to rummage and touch
  • People are more likely to buy something once they have touched it
  • Correct placement of signs is extremely difficult – need to think about where people are likely to look, not just where there is space
  • Sales aren’t the only record of how successful the store is (how many people browse but do not buy? How many begin queueing but give up after waiting? How many people are in different areas at a specific time? How easy is it to navigate? etc etc…)

It got me thinking about how some of these principles could be applied to libraries, and I can certainly see why Rachel recommended the book and where some of her research in libraries stems from.

I thought I’d share some of my initial thoughts on how the browsing experience could be improved in libraries:

    1. Books facing out on shelves – preventing what Rachel referred to as “browser’s neck” (bending to read the spines). Outward facing books can grab people’s attention but can also help if someone is looking for a particular book; I frequently get students who are looking for “the green book on study skills, I’ll know it when I see it” and it’s a lot easier to find covers rather than spines.
    2. Book displays – can be a useful way of increasing borrowing as you encourage people to touch the books, however also need to be aware that displays should not be perfectly neat as people could assume it is just for show and not to be touched or borrowed. Underhill recommended in some stores that employees purposely mess up some displays and found that their sales increased.
    3. Bestseller lists – Underhill recommends large freestanding bestseller lists for bookstores and video stores; these could be used to good effect for book lists, particularly in public libraries (e.g. Richard and Judy lists), but how about lists of the most commonly borrowed books, recently received books or books on a particular topical issue?
    4. Utilising queues with impulse borrowing/buying and information – queues are one place where Underhill recommends using information leaflets and boards for two reasons – to take advantage of everyone looking in a certain direction for an amount of time, and aso to help reduce customer perception of waiting time (anything over 2mins and customers will feel like it was a lot longer and can lead to dissatisfaction of service). How about some impulse bookmarks, bags, leaflets, marketing materials or stationary too? It’s certainly made me think about the other areas people may be waiting – for example utilising space outside study skills advisor rooms so that people have something to read whilst waiting (and we have a way of getting our messages across!).
    5. Ensuring there are enough chairs around the building – generally I don’t think libraries are too bad at this but I have seen examples where all the seating is in one area and the shelves in another; there really should be somewhere to sit near the books so that people can examine them more clearly if necessary.
    6. Giving people something to store their books in – this is something I’d particularly like to do as I know it’s a common issue for our students. Wouldn’t it be great if on the edge of the shelves (not at the entrance as people don’t tend to know if they’ll need one until they’ve examined the stock) there were a collection of reusable bags, like supermarket bags for life, that people could use to carry their books around the library (thus enabling them to carry more) and then offer them the option of purchasing when they borrow the books. I know I’d appreciate something like that and am sure I’d buy one that I could then reuse. I’ve seen some of our students bring reusable bags from public libraries and I think we’re really missing a trick by not having our own. This could increase revenue, make life easier for our users, and also market the service if people use them around campus.

These are some of the initial thoughts I had; I really enjoyed the book and would certainly recommend it – it’s given me a lot of food for thought! Are there any other things libraries can learn from retail, or any you have already seen evidence of? Please share in the comments, I think there is scope for really improving libraries by following the success of the retail environment. 🙂

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  • Lise Robinson

    thanks for sharing this – really interesting. I’m off to track down the book now.

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  • At Warwick university library they introduced free canvas book bags for students. The library put them at the self-service issue machines on a complimentary basis for students to take books home in. It’s a great scheme, the bags featured many different designs promoting the library and were always snapped up as soon as they were put out. Most regular library users seemed to have them and use them on a day to day basis to carry books around, so they weren’t even being used once and forgotten about!

    • @theatregrad – Thanks, I wasn’t aware of the scheme at Warwick, it’s great to know that there have been a few University libraries now (I saw them earlier this year at QMU, and see The Wikiman’s post about Shhh… bags at Leeds) that have successfully implemented a scheme for reusable bags. I see this as a great opportunity to help our students and also market the library, and it’s great to know that this has already worked in some academic libraries. Might have to raise this idea to management again now it has been proved successful elsewhere.

      @Roddy – I agree, signage is always a criticism of libraries in general and I know I experience the same when I visit a different library. Supermarkets and department stores seem so well organised and signposted now, whereas libraries still seem to fit to the building rather than making logical sense, and like you mentioned often have very poor signage.

  • WRT Correct placement of signs – in my supermarket there are excellent, large signs hanging down from the ceiling which indicate what you’ll find in the aisles. Not so, at all, in my university library, where it’s all numbers and small signs listing many subject and numbers. I think this is another area we can learn from retailing – i.e. large, obvious, signage.

  • Sarah Barker

    Excellent blog post about a subject that we too have been thinking about. Here at Yale College of Wrexham, we are in the process of changing our plastic carrier bags to recyclable, reusable ones. I also recently went on a marketing seminar where the concept of outward facing books on shelves was brought up to combat “browsers neck” problems and to attract customers. Even to colour coordinating the covers. We’ve used this in our fiction section and have books on display on slat panels at shelf ends and seen an increase in students picking them up to read; now if we could only encourage them to put them back! The book sounds fascinating and I shall certainly chase up a copy to read. Lots of ideas to have a think about as I feel Libraries could use a lot of retail knowhow in marketing.

  • I read this version in 2000 when it came out. I was a classroom teacher at the time and it really helped me think about book placement and display. Now to think about it in a bigger library space is my new challenge! Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  • Thanks for the positive comments, I’m glad it has encouraged others to think about their own library service and how it can benefit from these lessons learnt in retail.

    I think initiatives such as some of these could really help develop libraries of the future. 🙂

  • Thanks for this Jo, really interesting post. We have got to start using the bags idea asap! We sell them from the counter, but your model is a much better one – have them out amongst the shelves and then give people the option to purchase at the counter. So often it’s just the little things that have a big impact.

  • Thanks Paul, glad you like some of my ideas. If you do decide to put some bags in amongst the shelves I’d love to hear how it goes.

    I totally agree with you, it’s often the small ideas which make the big difference, something I’ve just read about which I loved was a “Please interrupt me” sign on a reference desk – great idea to overcome the “I’m sorry to bother you…” problem.

  • SueHouse

    Great reflective post Jo, interesting marketing ideas, I’ve forwarded a link to it to my line manager 🙂

    I also like the ‘Please interrupt me’ sign idea! I particularly dislike getting the ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, but…’ comment from students at our ‘Ask a librarian’ desk and although I try to give them an especially positive welcome and an invite to sit down, it obviously makes people feel slightly inferior, which is never a good thing and it makes me wonder how many people don’t ask at all because they don’t want to be a bother. Having a sign like this might change that.

    • Thanks Sue, glad you found it interesting.

      I always felt exactly the same as you about the “sorry to interrupt”, which was such a common start to an enquiry. I think roving in libraries is perhaps starting to improve the situation, but there is a danger that roving support can sometimes look like policing or pestering which isn’t a good thing for customer service either. It’s a difficult thing to get right.

  • libchris

    Visited the library in York earlier in the year (York Explore)… they have a cafe which is run by the library rather than by an outside caterer… and they have a display there about other items in the library (a sort of heavy duty perspex flip folder on the counter) – perfect for looking at while waiting for the queue to move 🙂
    -also many other good ideas to engage their users – well worth a visit.

    • Great stuff – thanks for letting me know Chris. Next time I’m in York I’ll have to try to pay a visit. I seem to remember Ned (@theREALwikiman) saying good things about the library in York too (if it’s the same one).

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