Paco Underhill, Envirosell founder and CEO says: “I turned a coping mechanism, a handicap, into a profession”. Underhill, who looks for ideas, inspiration and innovation in countries with a young population, employees from disparate parts of companies, students who don’t know what they want to do when the grow up, and his own kids”
How are innovative technologies changing retail and its future?
“They aren’t. It isn’t that technology that’s changing retail, it’s people who are changing retail. It is the evolution of us that retail is trying to use tech to follow. If you think what made a good store in 2000 and what makes a good store in 2019 – it isn’t technology per se, it is changes in us. Retail is one of the dipsticks of social change. Historically, retail is about birth, life, death, and compost. Technology isn’t an end, it’s a tool. If you look globally, you have stores or merchant empires that are born, they live, they die and they free up space and people for somebody else to do something different. This is one of the issues which I have with technology companies – which is that they are obsessed with technology rather than focus on the people by whom the technology is used, or who are affected by it. If we look at the evolution of the technology that affects people, it migrates from being a technology to becoming an appliance. If I look at the telephone – who were the first adopters of telephones? Women. Who were the first operators of desktop computing? Women. Who were the first adopters of ATMs inside of retail banks? Women. Did they care what that technology is? No, they cared what the implications are to the ramifications of their lives”.
What does your company do?
“We’ve historically been the principle testing agency for prototype stores, prototype bank branches, in the world. Our largest clients today are technology companies that are trying to understand the meeting of people, places, services and products. If you think of the ten largest global technology companies, we are presently working for 5 of them”.
And they use your services for understanding products and services, or actual physical locations?
“They do all of that: The meeting of physical, cyberspace, human behaviour, services and products”.
Who are your biggest influences? Who or what inspired you to do what you’re doing now?
“Oh, maybe 35 years ago I heard a lecture by the imminent urbanist William Whyte, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Organizational Man, and was talking about the roles of cities in human evolution. It was an hour long lecture, and I walked out of that lecture knowing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life”.
What is your professional vision? If you had to write down the motto of your company or your business in general, how would you define it, forward looking?
“We are contrarians who are in the business of winning victories for our clients”.
Where does your inspiration come from?
“I was the son of a diplomat and I grew up travelling the world. English is not my first language, I am somebody who always had to process the world by looking, and many people have said I turned a coping mechanism, a handicap, into a profession, I am a very good observer, I look, I see, I try to understand, and I process. So basically, inspiration is everywhere. I spend 150 nights a year on the road, I feel I am an outsider everywhere that I am, which is part of the reason I’m a good observer. If I put it in a cultural perspective – I have a Christian father, a Jewish mother and a Muslim wife”.
How do you approach a new project?
“I think one of the things that we have learned is to have a stakeholder engagement process, which is that when we start to work for a brand or a client, we like to bring as many people as we can to a conference room setting, from disparate parts of the company, and have them articulate their frustrations and needs. If you’re dealing with both merchant and technology companies, you want to be able to get the marketers, engineers, creatives, operators, all in the same room, so that the act of getting somebody on the bus ends up being much simpler. One of the things that’s very telling is that when we start working for a company, it is often with the marketing department that hires us, but when we continue working for a company, there may be 3 or 4 different divisions that request our services; and that 80% of our business comes from repeat clients. We have companies that we’ve been working with in some cases for 25 years.
We have a very robust relationship with the telecom industry, where there’s a meeting of services, products and problems, which is how do I communicate, how do I understand the communication device I have in my hand, what that device can do for me. And that work has taken us to almost 40 countries around the world. The world of banking is very similar from Israel to Istanbul, from Singapore to Moscow”.
How do you keep up with new technologies and innovation?
“First of all, it is good to have teenage children”, he laughs. “It’s funny but there’s a measure of truth to it. Whether it’s the teenagers telling me what the latest video games are, or they’re complaining to me what social media they’re exposed to. The other thing is recognizing that modern innovation happens in countries where the population basis is young. I try to pay a lot of attention to Korea, countries in the Middle East, Mexico and Brazil. I try to pay less attention to the places in the world where both people and money are old – USA, Germany, France”.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“I have a lecture that I’ve given in universities across the world. I will go into the lecture hall and go ‘everybody in this room who knows what they want to be when they grow up – you may leave the room right now. I don’t need to talk to you. Everyone who has no idea about what you want to do – please stay here and let’s talk about how you find it’. And I think one of the things that’s very important is going to a place where you get in the way of chance, whether it’s a big city or a big university. If you’d asked me 40 years ago whether I’d be doing what I do now, I would have had no idea. I think one of the things that’s important is keeping your eyes and ears open, and making the best of what opportunities life or God gives you”.
What is still your biggest challenge?
“From the standpoint of being a businessperson, it is dealing with very large customers. Meaning that, in the world of business, if you run a small or medium sized business and selling services to very large companies – in 2018 there’s often no connection between the satisfaction with the product that you’re delivering and the details of what your relationship is.
Where do you see the future of your field, and yourself in it?
“Part of what we are looking at is the meeting points of information and consumer habits. We are still eating and drinking, buying clothes, houses and services, but the actual face of the beast of consumption will probably change more in the next 5 years than it has in the previous 50. And that’s a chaotic situation – it is one which in there’s great danger but also great opportunity.
“One of the challenges that we face is that there isn’t necessarily a connection in 2018 between digital literacy and affluence. Many of us are certainly facing a millennial generation here in the USA, and certainly in Britain and France, to whom the level of affluence of their parents and their affluence is very different. I can look at my own household – my 20 year old stepdaughter may be more digitally literate, but I have more money than she does. And therefore, while the winds of digital change are there, one of the challenges here is dealing with digital literacy, I would say not necessarily the older generation but the money generation”.
“We see this in banking, the actual physical traffic to many bank branches is down by 80%, and yet the traffic that does come in to the branch are people who are trying to solve problems they haven’t been able to solve over the phone or via online connection. Those are often the critical issues that govern and nourish what an ongoing relationship is. Maybe the physical branch can get smaller, maybe it can change the physical design of the branch, because it’s less about designing a branch to prevent bank robbery, because bank robbery doesn’t happen with robbers – it happens with other bankers. If you think of it, that physical delivery point can be transformed. If I look at the most interesting bank branches, do I find them in London, Paris, New York? No. They’re places like Mexico City or Sao Paulo. For example, there’s a bank branch that we’ve looked at in Sao Paulo, it is in a shopping mall, there are 3 employees who are basically somewhere between a bank officer and a security guard. They bring people to very small conference rooms where they are connected through Facetime to a banker. So, there’s an ATM and a small telephone booth with Facetime that connects you with a banker. And that is the way services are delivered – not through an office but through Facetime”.
What’s next for you?
“As you know, I’m the author of very popular books, my books are out in 28 languages, including Hebrew, and I have two of them who are in process, one is called The Future of Eating and Drinking, just looking at the most basic form of human activity and trying to predict where it ends up going; and the other is a book on paleontology, the study of bones. One I get those 2 finished, then I don’t know – I’m 66 years old, I have a very young wife and teenage children here so I can’t stop working. I really enjoy what I do, for all the headaches and complaining. When you stop learning is when you start dying”.
Please fill in the blank: The Future of Retail Design Is _______
“a meeting of art and science. How can we cross the creative process of designing?
Whether it’s web or physical spaces, with the kind of science that makes those designs responsive to real human need”.