Photography changes how we shop

Paco Underhill

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Paco Underhill [ BIO ]


Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill, CEO and president of Envirosell, is an expert on shopping behavior, retailing, and global consumer trends. His books include Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (2000); Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping (2004); and What Women Want (2010). Underhill’s columns and editorials appear often in media outlets including the New York Times, Money Magazine, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and he is a popular keynote speaker at conferences, educational and corporate events around the world.

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Paco Underhill, expert on shopping behavior and global consumer trends, suggests some reasons for photography’s extraordinary impact on visual merchandizing and the shopping experience.

Historically, the presentation of goods has been a critical element of our commercial culture. One of the best monologues I’ve heard on the subject came from a pushcart vendor of vegetables in Istanbul, Turkey. For him, there was a logic and a set of visual strategies that determined what got placed next to what—the color contrast between eggplants and carrots, how the sun shone on his street corner, and the dramatic way he flipped open bags with a snap and a flourish to attract the next shopper.

The camera and the ability to print, broadcast, and project photographic images have introduced an even broader range of possibilities that add dimension and science to the ancient art form of selling. Retail design and visual presentation have evolved into art forms that are, by their nature, meant to appear and disappear. Call it conceptual art before there was conceptual art, and keep in mind that early in their careers, a number of 20th century artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns paid their rent by working as window dressers.

If just after its introduction, the photographic image was thought to represent the truth while painting was assumed to better express the imagination, the modern photograph can function as much as a work of fiction as any combination of paint strokes on canvas. The photographic image and its powerful younger sister, the moving image, have become unabashed commercial, political, and cultural tools. Whether it’s the technological pixie dust of digital retouching that makes a model skinnier or removes someone from a picture altogether, any assumed correlation between a photograph and evidence is naïve. The line that once fenced off commercial from fine art has blurred, too, and photography helped to erase that distinction. Irving Penn, Annie Lebowitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and even Ansel Adams all changed hats—now artist, now salesperson—easily and often.

The recent and increased role we’ve seen photography play in visual merchandising in retail stems from two roots. The first is technological. Starting in the 1980s, as printing presses computerized, large-scaled corporate merchants realized that their visual merchandising could be produced remotely by a centralized art department that could supply the visual display needs of hundreds, if not thousands, of retail locations. If the old adage once was that a printing company’s customer could choose two out of three attributes—speed, cost, quality—today a print run can be as small, large, or complex as the corporate customer’s needs and sophistication allows. Scale is no longer an issue; given the flexibility made possible by new printing options and materials, displays of large photographic images have become commonplace. Digital technology has reduced the cost of everything from design to writing the software necessary to keep the presses rolling. The transition from analog to digital has streamlined production, transformed the process of image management, and made possible a proliferation of photographic images in visual display.

The second influence is human and, from this writer’s point of view, anecdotal. In the late 1980s, a large bookstore client asked me to find them a senior window designer. As I trolled New York City, I found an industry devastated by AIDS. It was as if an entire generation of window artists was wiped out. At some point, when the full history of AIDS’ impact on America’s culture is written, will we see a connection that reveals that retail display’s increased reliance on photographic images occurred just as the creative community was compromised by disease and fewer people with the talent and will power to get the job done were around?

Today, the photograph in retail is everywhere—silk-screened images in windows, lifestyle graphics in the aisles, flat screens mounted from ceilings, projections on the floor, and the incorporation of images onto packaging. The creative drive has been focused on making good stuff look great. Whether shopping a print or online catalog or buying in a store like Williams-Sonoma, the genius of that is apparent when we get home and what we bought somehow doesn’t look as good as it did in a picture. The reality of merchandising is that most of us, once we’re over the age of forty, need nothing beyond fruit, vegetables, wine, olive oil, some grain, a little chocolate, and replacement socks and underwear. Everything else is discretionary. We have learned from experience that very few purchases are transformational.

Still, we remain a shopping species. And as our visual language and skills evolve faster than our spoken tongue or the written word, our eyes, and their connection to our brains only grow stronger. Thanks to the images we see in print, in the media, and on-line, we are heading toward an image-driven future where information is seen and processed in flashes rather than in one continuous stream. Whether meandering the souks of the Middle East, cruising the night markets of Asia, strolling down the concourse of Tyson’s Corner Mall, or surfing, the increasing role photographic images now play in the exchange of goods for money has become a telling dipstick of our social, economic, and visual evolution.

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Photo based window displays.  Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
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  • Photo based window displays. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
A composite photomural in a sports shop in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
  • A composite photomural in a sports shop in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
A kiosk in Rouse, Bulgaria. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
  • A kiosk in Rouse, Bulgaria. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
The pest control section at an American hardware store. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.
  • The pest control section at an American hardware store. Photo courtesy of Paco Underhill.

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