Because it is the scenter!
Ok so that was a terrible joke but now I have your attention let me introduce my blog topic – how can atmospheric scent affect consumer behaviour? (See the joke makes sense now doesn’t it?!?) I’m not overly sure why I chose this topic, maybe it’s due to the vast quantities of perfume we have on the shop floor at the moment, but there was no “a ha” moment when I knew I had my blog topic sorted. Still I guess that’s the thing about our senses, we don’t actively attend to them, we don’t notice them unless we are suddenly under threat or something dramatically changes in our environment. Anyway before I get into the nitty, gritty “hey people would you mind smelling this then going and buying a brand of baked beans” research (to my knowledge this exact research doesn’t exist, sorry if I got your hopes up), first a crash-course in how olfaction (smell) works.
We smell something when odorant molecules of an object transpire through the air, into our nasal cavity and bind to olfactory receptors. These then create a neural signal which is transmitted to an olfactory bulb (we have two, one for each nostril) which the ‘sorts’ the neural information and relays to other parts of the brain. The olfactory bulbs are located at the forefront of the brain which, together with the amygdala and hippocampus (and some other brain bits and pieces), makes up the limbic system. Smell is hence the only human sense that has a direct anatomical link with an individual’s memories (hippocampus) and emotions (amygdala). Marketing, in a general psychological sense, aims to tap into our memory systems providing us with information on products and brands with the hope that in the future we will recall them. Armed with a little bit of knowledge on neuroscience it seem pretty obvious the direct link to an individual’s memories is through their nose.
One way that scent is useful in a consumer environment is that it provides a state/context dependent memory cue. There is lots of research that shows recall for information is better when the recall is occurring in a similar state and environment to which the information was learnt. The ‘scuba-diving’ study was one of the first to explore this in terms of a broad environment and found that if you learnt information underwater your recollection of that information would be better if you recalled it whilst also underwater when compared to dry land. Further research has shown physiological state, mood and ultimately scents have been shown to work in the same way. One way to help customers remember facts about a product (i.e. brand name, price, use) would be to teach/market it to them whilst they are experiencing an ambient scent (a scent not directly related to a product but is artificially present within the environment). Hence when they smell this scent again they should be more inclined to automatically recall/find the information easier to recall when asked, the information essentially priming the customer to think of the product. This has been found to work best when the smell is more unique or distinct.
However the main problem with trying to create an emotional or memorable association with a scent is that it is impossible to know exactly what associations are already present in an individual. Yet these pre associations can also be an advantage and help create a brand image. An example of this, given in a review into scent and consumer research, is that roses can have the mental representations of femininity and romance. Hence by making a retail environment smell of roses consumers would label that environment, and the products sold within it, also as feminine or romantic. Of course the importance of this is that you pick a scent that corresponds to the image you are trying to present, roses may smell nice but they aren’t going to work in a sports store).
Congruency of odour in a consumer environment is quite well researched with research finding that whilst incongruent scents and environments (i.e. floral smell in a coffee shop) will increase the effectiveness of the scent in creating a context dependent memory, it may have a damaging impact on sales. This is because congruent odours enhance product evaluations result in consumers spending more time seeking information and making a decision on a product. For example if you smell chocolate whilst in the chocolate aisle of a supermarket you should, on average, spend longer surveying different chocolate brands and gathering information before making your choice giving the chocolate marketing more time for effect and increased saliency. The opposite effect would be true if you were in the same aisle and you could smell flowers therefore damaging chocolate sales. Additionally scents have been found to prime individuals to purchase congruent items. In a very recent study it was found that the ambient smell of chocolate in a bookstore increased sales of chocolate and baking related books, yet decreased sales of incongruent books e.g. car mechanics.
So how can all this apply to where I work? Well firstly it would be hard to find a congruent scent, after all I work in what is mainly a clothes shop, and whilst some may argue the smell of fresh laundry to denote clean clothes may work, I think pre associations of laundry powder meaning an item has already been worn would hinder sales. After all we don’t put returned washed items out on the rails again for this very reason, people don’t want clothes others have taken home and returned even if they smell lovely.
However research has shown that scents that prime appetite, such as of chocolate or biscuits, increase general impulsivity including impulse clothing buys. Additionally at this festive time of year a ‘Christmas smell’, such as mulled wine, should have a positive impact on sales of Christmas related merchandise. Research has shown that the scent of mulled wine increases sales of festive foods and, before anyone argues that the reason that works is because mulled wine is also a food product, the smell of toast has also been shown to increase the sales of toasters – it’s all about the neural associations. If mulled wine makes you think of Christmas then you are more primed to buy that reindeer themed jumper that caught your eye as you walked in the store.
However my workplace would be better off finding a general, positively-rated, ambient scent if they wanted to use the senses to influence consumer behaviour. Bloomingdale’s is a store that already does this using individualised departmental scents with the aim of increasing positive emotions experienced by customers and to strengthen the brand image. Scent is a powerful tool is in the consumer world however, whether it is ethically right to use to influence someone’s behaviour, is a different matter.
Fun Fact to end the blog: 86% of Americans, and 69% of Europeans, think that scent is important when buying a car
Fun YouTube video to end the blog: (I couldn’t find a song that worked but whilst discussing perfume I got thinking of this comedy clip about perfume advertising)