Guest contribution • 06.01.2020

Smell – association - sale?

How scents affect your customers

It’s highly likely that you have entered a store and immediately noticed a distinctive scent. The deliberate use of scents is no longer a rare occurrence.

For quite some time now, companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, Motel One or Singapore Airlines have routinely used scents to create a pleasant atmosphere and immersive brand experience.

Older woman standing in front of a fruit shelf in the supermarket and smelling...
Source: PantherMedia / Wavebreakmedia

Different scents for different retail environments

The science of scent has made enormous strides in recent years. A recent study conducted by Professor Mark Leenders from Melbourne’s RMIT University found that the use of melon scent positively affected the perception and behavior of shoppers at a supermarket. Customers indicated that the scent improved their mood and gave them a more positive attitude towards the store and its products. Unlike customers who were not exposed to the scent, the time exposed shoppers spent browsing in stores increased by an average of nearly 30 percent. That being said, scents tend to have different effects in different retail environments. While smells like grapefruit, ginger, and orange in department stores prompt customers to feel more positively about the retail environment, scents like mint and lemon work better in fashion boutiques and similar settings. If retailers manage to craft the perfect pleasant ambient scent, their customers spend on average up to 23 percent more according to a recent analysis published by the researchers Holger Roschk and Masoumeh Hosseinpour.

Man in grey bago smiles into the camera
Jun.-Prof. Dr. Marcel Lichters
Source: Otto-von-Guericke Universität Magdeburg

Cool and warm

Another type of research studies the difference between cool and warm scents. Cool scents like mint or eucalyptus prompt customers to perceive the retail environment as colder than it actually is. This physical sensation of cold means shoppers subsequently tend to buy and consume more calorie-dense and unhealthy foods. In contrast, warm scents such as cinnamon or caramel have the exact opposite effect. They prompt customers to reach for a healthy salad or a chilled coke. A U.S. research group led by Dipayan Biswas attributes this phenomenon to our body’s innate sense to maintain body temperature and keep it balanced.

Meanwhile, the effects of warm and cool fragrances are not only reflected in food consumption. Warm scents make customers feel more confined and enclosed, similar to the feeling you might experience in a large crowd. For most people, this is a rather uncomfortable sensation because when we are in a crowd, we often feel helpless and subject to the whim of others. This association evokes the desire to set yourself apart from the crowd or to regain control over the situation. It results in customers buying luxury products because they promise to make you stand out from the crowd and signal an affluent status.

Explicit associations

Some scents can evoke specific associations. We all know the feeling when we recall scents from our childhood. Suddenly, certain memories are summoned in your mind’s eye. The same applies to traditional scents associated with the Christmas season like cinnamon or chocolate. Yet these specific scents are not just working their magic at Christmas time. Belgian researchers led by Lieve Doucé have shown that people at bookstores buy more baking books and related books on chocolate when they smell chocolate - even in the summertime. In this case, customers were unable to find a causal relationship between the scent and their behavior.

Man in dark bago against dark background
Prof. Dr. Marko Sarstedt
Source: private

Smells can have a lasting effect

Apart from the different types of scents, researchers have recently studied whether ambient scents also have long-term, lasting effects on customer behavior. Our current research also focuses on this area. In a series of field studies with over 700 railway travelers, we have shown that the targeted scenting of train compartments prompted travelers to rate the company's services more favorable. However, the assessment of the brand identity was not positively affected. What makes this so interesting is the fact that while rail passengers did not consciously detect the scent, it nevertheless influenced their assessments. The heightened value perception was sustained as even two weeks after the scent was no longer employed, its effect still leveraged a more positive assessment of train rides.

Ethical concerns

Scents are not just able to help customers build a favorable perception of services or subtly prompt them to spend more time at the store and buy more. In fact, smells are especially significant in situations that are actually not terribly pleasant on closer inspection. One example of this pertains to the notion of entering a metal tube along with several hundred other passengers and moving at 600 mph (1,000 km/h) at 30,000 feet (10,000 meters). The deliberate use of fragrance in the cabin during air travels ensures that passengers relax and fosters the subjective experience of time passing more quickly.

At the same time, the use of ambient scents also raises health and ethical concerns. For people suffering from allergies or asthmatics, for instance, it is vital that companies indicate the use of ambient scents. What’s more, when it comes to the subconscious effects of scents, the question is whether their use crosses the ethical line. This is where current research helps shine a bright light on these challenges.

Authors: Jun.-Prof. Dr. Marcel Lichters und Prof. Dr. Marko Sarstedt

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