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There’s been a major shift in the demographic makeup of Canadian grocery shoppers – younger and more diverse – but also a significant (and growing) population of older shoppers.iprogressman/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Whether it’s your local grocery store or fast-food restaurant, there’s a good chance that Paco Underhill has had some part in designing it.

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Underhill, an environmental psychologist based in the U.S., has helped big businesses understand consumer behaviour through his consulting firm, Envirosell. Retailers around the world – from Best Buy to Canadian Tire to Longo’s – have used his insights to design spaces in a way that maximizes profits.

Much of his approach depends on what he calls “biological constants” – behaviours that stay the same regardless of environment. This includes the fact that 90 per cent of customers are right-handed and have a natural preference to turn right when entering spaces. (This is why retailers often place core products to the immediate right of the entrance.)

But retailers today are wrestling with big changes, too. There was the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there’s also been a major shift in the demographic makeup of Canadian grocery shoppers – younger, more diverse, yes, but also a significant (and growing) population of older shoppers. For all these reasons, says Underhill, the North American supermarket is due for an overhaul. Here’s what he predicts.

Your work involves using demographic data to predict behaviour in stores. Practically speaking, what does that look like in a grocery store?

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Paco Underhill.ENDRIGO RIGHETO/Handout

One is generational, meaning the way someone moves through a space at 25 and the way someone moves through space at 55 are really different.

Somebody moving through a store at the age of 25 – chances are likely that they have a phone in their hands. It isn’t that they’re checking the price on something. It’s that they’re multitasking – they’re talking to their mother, to a friend. They may be playing a video game while they do their shopping.

Another seminal difference is men versus women. Women look up a lot less. Women are programmed to be much more defensive of their body bubble than men. So as a female, when you look up, you lose control of your immediate body bubble.

You think the standard grocery store today is based on an outdated 1930s design. Why?

In the aging supermarket, they wanted to hold you in the supermarket for as long as they possibly could. Whereas part of what we know now is that all of us, but particularly the younger generation, are multitasking – particularly female shoppers.

They’re looking at getting in and getting out faster. So why is the milk fixture still the farthest from the door?

The second theme is that the design of the grocery store was heavily influenced by the technology of the freezer and refrigerated cases. So something we’re now starting to get to is, ‘Why, for example, can’t we have yogurt and bananas together? Or yogurt and blueberries together?’

We’re already seeing newer grocery stores – particularly in urban areas – redesigned with millennial and Gen Z shoppers in mind. But what about older populations?

Once you reach the age of 40, about 80 per cent of your weekly purchases are the same. You’re buying the same Grey Poupon, rather than Gulden’s mustard. So much of what’s in a grocery store is designed to scream at you from a shelf. So if you’ve already made a commitment, why do I have to buy a box that screams at me? Why can’t I buy a discreet container? Or have something filled up that I’ve preordered, that fits into a customized cabinet in my refrigerator or kitchen? This is one of the topics I’m actively working on – trying to cross the store and the home as it relates to food. Something that is more ecologically sound, so that we’re doing less recycling and more repurposing. What this gets at is that the future of retail is to specialize. It’s to say, ‘this is who I am, and I’m not trying to be all things to all people.’

So what does that mean for the future of the supermarket?

One of the things a supermarket chain has to figure out, location by location, is ‘What is national, and what is global?’ I did a program for Target in Jersey City, and I said, ‘Where is your banana ketchup?’ They had no idea what I was asking. Jersey City has one of the largest Filipino populations of any city in the U.S. Having a fixture in the store that sold Filipino condiments would drive loyalty. Whether it’s banana ketchup in Jersey City, or a Halal meat section in Mississauga, or something else – those are all things the grocery store has to figure out.

You also talk about the future of tech – about, say, smart refrigerators that use AI to track grocery inventory, or help with meal planning. What’s the potential of these technologies?

There are parts of our home that are subscribable. That means that if I’m Procter and Gamble, I can ask my customers to fill out a survey. ‘How do you wash your clothes? Do you have schoolchildren? Are there dirt stains on your clothing because you garden?’ Then you have them send you a water sample and custom blend a laundry soap for that customer. And so the trip that we make to the grocery store is going to become some hybrid of things that we’ve preordered, and things that we take pleasure out of selecting. But one of the troubles I have is Silicon Valley keeps designing services for their own communities. Meaning that if you live in Silicon Valley, you can order something online and they leave that at your doorstep. But there is no way for you to take an online delivery at home if you’re out working. So we need choices. The idea that we’re going to order all our stuff online makes sense for a piece of our population, but not for everybody.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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