The Effect of Scent in the Retail Industry

The Effect of Scent in the Retail Industry – Zeynep Durukan 26th March 2014

Originally published in The Harvard Business Review

As technology rapidly changes and affects our lifestyles, our shopping habits are also inevitably shifting. However, the notion of ‘forming emotional bonds’ with brands never loses its value. While debates regarding the loss of the importance of physical environments with the boom in the cyber world arise; successful brands know that ‘close relationships’ with consumers can not be achieved independent of physical environments. Therefore, the existance and importance of retail branches thus remains.

One of the main triggers of emotional bonds are sensory ones. Brands that successfully manage to use sensory marketing methods and tap into their consumers’ memory unit and trigger their emotions form stronger bonds with them. It is not possible to boast one sense over another, but, the sense of smell is highly effective in triggering emotions and refreshing memories— tapping into the consumers’ subconscious.

Within the competitive environment of our time, consumers are exposed to over 3000 brand messages daily. These messages that are very much like one another form an indifferent clutter of information within the consumers’ mind and brands have realized long ago that it is impossible to differentiate themselves from others by solely using advertising and product messages. Consumers are also empowered; as opposed to remembering a TV commercial with all its details fifty years ago, they now have the tools to be able to avoid them.

When all these factors are combined, a pyshical environment where the consumer is able to have an experience and interact with the product and service becomes even more important. Although things like design, layout, employees and lighting are major factors that affect the customer experience, the use of scent in physical environments also sneaked its way in to the customer experience enhancers checklist! Martin Lindstrom’s famed argument regarding the topic is clear: you may close your eyes and your ears, you may avoid touching or tasting; but scent is a part of the air you breathe – you can not escape that.

There are over 100,000 scents in the world. About 1000 of these are fundamental scents, and the remaining are their different variations. Considering we inhale approximately 20,000 times a day, we are exposed to an uncountable number of scents daily. The limbic system that bears the main responsibility of triggering emotions, memories and reactions in the brain allows us to recognize and define these scents. We all perceive scents differently as a result of our age, gender and memories etc., however, when a scent appeals to our personal experiences and refreshes our positive memories our actions and decisions are also affected positively.

Dr. Alan Hirsch’s test is far more recognized today. When Hirsch placed two identical pairs of Nike shoes in two identical rooms that only differ by their smell (one scentless and one sprayed with a flower scent), it was observed that 84% of participants chose the pair of shoes in the scented room. In fact, they even agreed to pay an extra $10 for the exact same pair of shoes! Other research also shows that scents trigger emotions and memories and affect the purchasing decision positively with numbers reaching up to a 20% increase in sales.

Brands that want to create a familiarity feeling and form stronger bonds with their consumers now opt to using scent as a way to affect purchasing decisions by enhancing their customers’ experience and increasing the amount of time spent in their retail points. By implementing scents that complement the brand essence, and product and services that are offered, brands aim to grasp the consumers past as well as construct positive experiences for the future. To summarize, scent becomes an unchangeable and inevitable factor that enhances our shopping experiences that brands must use to their advantage!

Zeynep Durukan is Head of Marketing at I-AM Istanbul.