How Smell Affects Customer Spending

If you’ve ever operated a retail store, you likely understand how various elements of the space could affect sales. From the layout of the store to the music piped in, the environment can have a major impact on customer behavior. But what about the way a store smells? Research has shown that certain scents can also inspire shoppers to spend more time in a store and make additional purchases.

What is scent marketing?

Scent marketing is simply the strategic use of fragrance at specific consumer touch points to influence their behaviors. With the right scent, you can build an emotional connection with the customer and make the shopping experience more memorable.

The strategy is both an aggressive marketing technique and a subtle one. It is aggressive because it allows businesses to reach people beyond the confines of their shop as the chosen scent can be wafted through open doors and windows. It is subtle because most consumers don’t realize the fragrance they’re smelling is intentional rather than coincidental.

Want to learn more about the many types of marketing? Read our small business marketing guide.

The power of scent

Scents can influence people’s emotions, so they have the potential to influence consumer behavior. The aromas of lavender, basil, cinnamon and citrus are relaxing, while peppermint, thyme and rosemary are invigorating. Ginger, cardamom, licorice and chocolate tend to stir romantic feelings, while rose promotes positivity and happiness.

Simple smells, as opposed to complex blends of scents, are powerful motivators when it comes to spending, researchers at Washington State University found. That’s because simple smells, such as citrus and pine, don’t require much mental processing from the shopper, freeing their brains to conjure images associated with these fresh scents.

“What we showed was that the simple scent was more effective,” said Eric Spangenberg, one of the study’s authors and currently the faculty director for the Center for Global Leadership at the Paul Merage School of Business.

For the study, the researchers developed two scents: a simple orange scent and a more complex orange-basil-green-tea scent. For 18 days, the researchers watched more than 400 customers’ behaviors in a home decorations store with the simple scent, the complex scent and no scent.

The study revealed that the 100 consumers who shopped with the simple scent in the air spent an average of 20 percent more. Spangenberg said the research underscores the need to understand how scents affect customers.

“Most people are processing it at an unconscious level, but it is impacting them,” he said. “The important thing from the retailer’s perspective and the marketer’s perspective is that a pleasant scent isn’t necessarily an effective scent.”

Published in the Journal of Retailing, the study was co-authored by Andreas Herrmann, of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland; David Sprott, of Washington State University; and Manja Zidansek, also of Washington State University.

Research shows that simple scents require shoppers to perform less mental processing, which encourages them to make stronger associations with the scent, spending potentially more.

How do businesses use scent marketing?

As online retailers dominate many markets, scent marketing has become a way for brick-and-mortar stores to enhance the shopping experience and boost sales. One study, conducted by neurologist Alan Hirsch, showed that the presence of a floral scent increased Nike customers’ intent to purchase by up to 84 percent over the control group, suggesting scent marketing could have a powerful effect on consumer behavior.

Scent marketing is used to trigger certain emotions in potential customers, subtly encouraging them to not only associate a scent with a company’s brand identity, but also to spend more time in their stores or places of business. Pleasant, simple smells that aren’t overbearing also improve customer experience. If shoppers have a positive experience in the store, they may associate good memories with the specific scents. This could play a role in building brand loyalty.

Scent marketing usually entails more than just spraying a pleasant scent in a store or lighting some candles. To do scent marketing effectively, businesses have to consider how scents may fit into their goals and their overall brands. For example, a liquor store that wants to draw attention to its whiskey selection may choose warm, smoky scents. Those same fragrances wouldn’t work as well in a children’s clothing retailer.

Our sense of scent is linked directly to our limbic system, which controls memory and emotion. Ambient scent may offer the following benefits to a business:

  • It boosts recognition and memory performance.
  • It increases the time consumers spend in a shop or business.
  • It elevates mood and a person’s level of enjoyment.
  • It improves the quality of a service encounter.

Scent marketing can cause customers to associate your business with pleasant feelings and memories. If you choose the right scents for your target audience, scent marketing can improve customer retention.

Examples of scent marketing

There are many ways to use scent marketing in your business. Hyatt Place, for example, has been using scent branding for years. Hyatt Place launched with a signature scent it calls Seamless, which incorporates blueberries and floral notes on a base of vanilla and musk, and uses this blended scent throughout its Hyatt Place properties. For Hyatt, like other companies using scent branding, the goal is to associate the hotel with a pleasant scent and trigger a subconscious association with the brand.

Other companies use the strategy as well. At Walt Disney World in Florida, for example, visitors to the Magic House at Epcot Center enjoy the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Singapore Airlines has a patented scent, Stefan Floridian Waters. The company uses the fragrance in its aircraft, its flight attendants wear it and all in-flight towels are laundered with it.

Another way to think about scent marketing is how it works at a movie theater. People walk in and the first thing they notice is the smell of popcorn. This is not an accident. The majority of money made by a theater is from the concessions sold, not the movie tickets.

Even theaters that sell full meals in dine-in stadiums have popcorn popping when consumers first come through the door because it provides context for the experience that is about to occur. Scent association reminds moviegoers of not only all of their past theater experiences, but also the snacks they’ve eaten and that they can treat themselves to again.

How can you make your business smell good?

If you’ve never considered your business’s scent before, it’s not too late to start. There are plenty of options for infusing fragrance into your retail space. The right approach depends on your business’s size and its unique needs. If a retailer is looking for a high-end appeal, for example, the smell of leather is the way to go. Linen and cotton can evoke cleanliness, good health and springtime.

The first step is to ensure your space has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before you layer a fragrance into the mix. For a smaller storefront, you can introduce the scent with tools that you might use at home, such as a basic diffuser or a room spray. Many retail spaces, however, need more sophisticated means, such as industrial scent diffusers. These come in different sizes to accommodate various spaces.

Some businesses, such as coffee shops and bakeries, may not require a lot of additional work to foster good smells. Just avoid overpowering cleaning chemicals and other odors that might obscure the sweet smells your company already produces.

Improving your atmosphere with scent marketing

The point of marketing is to Influence the way your customers think and, especially, the way they act. Scent marketing is simply one more tool to add to your marketing strategy. Whatever atmosphere you seek, you can likely get it through a scent or combination of fragrances.

Cailin Potami contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.