April 27, 2013

How stores trick our senses to make us buy more (Part 4 of 5: Smell)

(Read the previous posts in this series: tastesight, and touch).

Grocery shopping is a real chore (at least, in my mind).

It takes planning, list-making, and coupon clipping. One spends an hour ambling up and down twenty aisles, eventually shelling out a hundred dollars or so. Then there are heavy bags to carry into the house, in pairs—and then these items have to be put away. Phew.

For many, this is a weekly, repetitive torture. But for me, there is one upside. Regardless of whether I'm in the meat department, perusing the dairy, or contemplating my pickle options, I can smell it: the enticing aroma of the bakery, pumped sneakily through the air conditioning system. More often than not, I'll check out with a cookie or two (or twenty).

Not only is the ability to smell one of humans' most primitive senses, but it is also closely tied to memory and emotion. How do stores take advantage of our sense of smell to tempt us to buy more than we bargained for?

Open up a new tab on your  Internet browser and Google "scent branding."

Weird, right? Businesses are actually employing companies such as ScentAir and Aire-Master to pioneer this new craze known as "ambient scenting." Confined early on to lingerie stores and, most famously, that woody cologne scent bursting out of Abercrombie & Fitch stores, scent branding allows companies to adopt a distinctive smell for their shops and products.

(Supposedly, customers even complained when the fragrance had left their A&F shirts after several washes. Really?)

The idea is to give the customer an experience. More recently, casinos and hotels have hopped onto the bandwagon, offering "welcoming," "calming," and "peaceful" scents for their guests. Even some workplaces have adopted scents thought to enhance productivity.

But beyond the experience, there's another motive: customers will remember their time in the store and with the product through scent memory. And—hopefully—it's positive, encouraging repeat business.

Odorants stimulate olfactory receptor cells located within the olfactory bulb of our noses. These receptor cells, which have different affinities for different odorants, converge into the olfactory tract.

The olfactory tract primarily terminates in the piriform cortex of the brain, but also has two other destinations: the medial amygdala (involved in pairing events with emotion) and the entorhinal cortex (implicated in memory).

Think about any distinctive odor you experience, whether it's the smell of your work office that you encounter daily, or a long-lost recipe baking in the oven that you haven't enjoyed since childhood. Along with the scent, you're also re-awakening a memory and stirring up an emotion—whether, good or bad, strong or fleeting.

If I could make my blog scratch-and-sniff, I'd share the scent of Hershey's chocolate with my readers, something I'm lucky enough to experience a few times a week hovering in the atmosphere of my town.

The scent, in my opinion, may only be beat by that of a month-long experiment by the Bloom grocery store chain back in 2010. Along NC-150, a billboard (yes, a billboard), with the aid of a fan, actually emitted the aroma of a charcoal steak during morning and evening rush hours.

Marketing, it seems, has literally gone to the dogs.

Rabin MD, & Cain WS (1984). Odor recognition: familiarity, identifiability, and encoding consistency. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 10 (2), 316-25 PMID: 6242742

1 comment:

  1. Olfaction, the sense of smell, is the response to chemicals that contact the membranes inside the nose. Cells of the olfactory bulb code the identity of cells, grouping pleasant odors together. This idea of ambient scenting is intriguing and makes sense (no pun intended). It makes you wonder all of the ways in which a business can manipulate you into buying items from them. Typically, when people shop (especially women) they are having a pleasant experience. By combining this experience with a specific scent, a memory is created. When a customer returns, the idea is that they will smell the familiar scent coming from the store and want to go inside due to their pleasurable experience in the past. On average, women can detect odors more readily than men. Also, brain responses to odors are stronger in women than in men. Since women typically go shopping more than men, using ambient scenting seems like the perfect way to get new and returning customers. Due to hormones, young adult women gradually become more and more sensitive to repeated scents. This means that if a young woman is walking through the mall all day, the repeated scent from the store will become stronger and stronger, finally (hopefully) bringing her in. It is good that the link from smell to memory to emotion is a quick one, because olfactory receptors respond to a new odor but not to a continuing one. The smell is not fading, you are just becoming more used to it. Could the stores make things more interesting by using pheromones in their scents? Since the behavioral effects of pheromones occur unconsciously, it would be cool to see how people responded and if they realized they even were. It would be interesting to experiment with people in a hotel or office by changing the scents to try and obtain certain moods from them. They would surely notice a change in the smell of the room. If it worked, how quickly would the uninformed people change their moods in response to the scents? Would women show an average response time quicker than men?


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