comments_image Comments

You’re Being Tricked Into Buying That Awful Sweater!

New research shows how simple scents can lure consumers and get them in the shopping spirit.

Photo Credit:


This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

While you’re out doing your holiday shopping this month, you might notice a certain scent in the air. No, it’s not the Spirit of Christmas (or not  just that, anyway). It’s the smell of pine. Or orange. Or fresh-baked cookies.

There’s a reason for that.

Savvy retailers use all kinds of sensory information to convey their brand, welcome you in, and put you in a frame of mind that they hope will lead to more sales. Their displays are arranged just so. Their wall colors are carefully chosen. The music burbling through their speakers hits all the right notes.

That fresh-baked-cookie smell is part of the package. The use of scents to lure customers in is the latest frontier in sensory marketing, with an entire industry supplying retailers with just the right aroma for their business.

The problem is, the science isn’t always there.

“There are [companies that do scent consultation for stores], and I’m not sure they’re not just saying, ‘You’re a clothing store and it’s Christmas time, so we’re gonna give you Christmas Clothing 103,’” says  Eric Spangenberg, an environmental psychologist and the dean of Washington State University’s College of Business. “I don’t think the science is being done, in many instances, because they’re just using intuition. ‘It’s Christmas time, let’s use mulled wine.’”

That’s where Spangenberg comes in. One of the pioneers in scent-marketing research, he was among the first to furnish scientific evidence that scents could get people in the buying mood.

In his research, he  has pointed out the importance of a couple of key factors in finding the right scent. Pleasantness is one, of course—no one expects a rush on their store if inside it smells like a sweaty dog (though try telling that to the people at Abercrombie & Fitch). Intensity is another; Spangenberg acknowledges that, in using this kind of marketing, retailers run the risk of alienating customers who are especially sensitive to artificial scents.

In a 2006 study, he also established that the scents should match the rest of the shopping experience. Alternatively dousing a Pullman, Wash., department store in the masculine scent of rose maroc and the feminine scent of vanilla, he found that women bought less when the store smelled masculine, and men bought less when the store smelled feminine.

“If [the scent is] not congruent with what people expect, then that can hurt you,” he told me in 2007. “If you go into a cheese shop, you expect it to smell like certain cheeses, and it’s awesome. If you had that in a clothing store, though, you’d walk right out, because it’s not congruent.”

SO SAY YOU’RE A HOME-GOODS STORE IN SWITZERLAND and you want to encourage consumption with a scent. You think you’ve found just the right aroma. It’s pleasant, it’s subtle, it’s congruent with what you do. Perfect, right?

Spangenberg’s latest research,  published in the  Journal of Retailing, explores another factor: aromatic complexity.

In one part of the study, Spangenberg and some colleagues set up camp at (you guessed it) a home-goods store in Switzerland to test two similar scents that had been determined to be equally pleasant, equally familiar to customers, equally subtle and equally congruent with the store. One was a simple orange scent; the other was a more complex blend of orange, basil and green tea.

In 18 days of testing, they found that those who made purchases at the store while it smelled simply of orange spent about 20 percent more. And not only 20 percent more than in unscented conditions, but 20 percent more than in the presence of the more complex scent.

See more stories tagged with: