HERE'S SOMETHING YOU SHOULD know: New-home buyers spend more time shopping at a Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or Blockbuster than they do at one of your model homes.

Average shopping time in model homes is so short—just eight minutes, 58 seconds in all—that builders really need to take a closer look at how they merchandise their model homes.

“One of the things that blew me away was the degree to which home builders haven't thought through how a model home is supposed to work,” says Paco Underhill, noted New York–based behavioral research expert, who recently co-authored a study on home-shopper behavior for cabinet maker Merillat Industries.

“Without a lot more of a financial investment, model homes could show the lifestyle [improvement] a homeowner gets from investing in a feature like kitchen cabinets,” explains Underhill, who adds that builders go through the tremendous expense of putting up model homes, but then don't go the last “25 feet” to get the details right.

Underhill's company, Envirosell, observed new-home shoppers as they walked through 30 model homes from nine different builders in five markets. Envirosell's research was supported by Murphy Marketing Research/Trend-town, which conducted one-on-one interviews and “shadow shopped” the new-home shoppers, observing their actions as they progressed through the models. The homes were in the $200,000 to $450,000 price range.

In addition, over the course of several months, Envirosell logged more than 1,000 hours of videotape and conducted 153, 15-minute post-shopping interviews. Envirosell's goal was to record the traffic and to determine shoppers' likes and dislikes.

Murphy Marketing conducted an additional 68 in-depth, one-on-one interviews, the goal of which was to find out why people made certain decisions.

“The idea was to do a study so we could learn from retailers,” says Karen Strauss, vice president of marketing for Merillat, which funded the project to learn more about how home shoppers behave when shopping new kitchens.

HIGH CALIBER This kind of study is unique for the home building industry, particularly bringing in a research group the caliber of Envirosell. Underhill, the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, is widely known as a guru in the retailing world. His client list includes The Gap, Ann Taylor, Star-bucks, CompUSA, McDonald's, and Citibank. Although he has consulted for construction-oriented companies such as The Home Depot and Lowe's, this is one of Underhill's first projects in the home building field.

The results of the study were presented in January to builders at the International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla. Here's what the researchers learned about new-home shoppers and how they behave in model homes: