Walk into any American mall during the months of November and December, and, if you can tune out the hordes of frantic holiday shoppers, you'll likely notice upbeat Christmas music, the smell of pine boughs and cinnamon, bright red candy-canes, and plenty of free samples.
For the casual shopper, these holiday accoutrements may seem to exist as an extension of the commercial joys of the season. But for brick-and-mortar retailers, especially those that sell commodities, the five senses matter. Atmospherics, or the study of physical retail spaces, is a field increasingly of interest as more and more marketers and small-business owners try to perfect their stores' "retail experiences." During the holiday season, when stakes are sky-high and competition is fierce, atmospherics become especially important. And businesses that understand how to play into consumer pyschology will likely reap the rewards of higher sales.
"The scents of pine, cinnamon, and mulled cider join with the sounds of carolers, traditional hymns, and pop holiday tunes to create the Christmas holiday season in the minds of many," notes Eric R. Spangenberg in his 2003 study, "It's Beginning to Smell (and Sound) a Lot Like Christmas: The Interactive Effects of Ambient Scent and Music in a Retail Setting." "In attempts to attract Christmas shoppers to their stores, retailers often implement such mainstay environmental cues to create pleasant and enticing atmospheres that evoke the spirit of the holiday season....Our results suggest that wise retailers can act upon this lesson by blessing their customers with synchronized sound systems and scent diffusers, and in turn receive the blessing of strong holiday sales."
"Our results suggest that wise retailers can act upon this lesson by blessing their customers with synchronized sound systems and scent diffusers, and in turn receive the blessing of strong holiday sales." —Eric R. Spangenberg
How do the five senses affect retail—and how your business might be able to (subconciously, at least) encourage shoppers to buy more products and shop more often? We asked the atmospherics experts.
The way your store smells matters. A lot.
"Ambient scent contributes to the building of a favorable perception of the mall environment, and indirectly of product quality," notes Jean-Charles Chebat and Richard Michon in "Impact of ambient odors on mall shoppers' emotions, cognition, and spending: A test of competitive causal theories," a study that explored how citrus smells influenced customer moods and decisions.
Of course, it's no easy task to determine which smells are approriate for each store; however, some research indicates that "ambient," scents, or a generally pleasing odors, have several implications for consumer pyschology, and can positively influence purchase decisions. In "Improving the Store Environment: Do Olfactory Cues Affect Evaluations and Behaviors?," the American Marketing Association concluded that a good smell—no particular one—can literally alter a customer's perception of time, which can lead to more time spent in the store, and more sales for the store owner.
"Ambient scent may lead to an enhanced subjective experience for retail shoppers...the time consumers spend examining merchandise, waiting in lines, or waiting for help may be made to seem shorter than it actually is by introducing ambient scent into the environment," the study read.
A savory or sweet smell, as you might expect, also makes a shopper hungry—and not just for food.
"They get your saliva glands going, and that makes you hungry," Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, told the Los Angeles Times recently. "And when you're hungry, you're more apt to buy anything, not just food."
Music can be be a powerful marketing tool. (And it's not just the songs you choose.)
Sound matters, too. Allen Klevens, CEO of Los Angeles-based Prescriptive Music, which works with companies such as The Cheesecake Factory and Century 21 to create music playlists, says the goal of music in a store should be to get customers to spend more money, stay longer, and, most importantly, have them return.
While it certainly makes sense to play holiday jingles during the gift-buying season, he says, you don't want to drive your customers—or staff—nuts with repetitive holiday music.
"In August, we start at approximately 20 to 25 percent of holiday music," he says. "Then, as it gets closer to December, we raise it up to 40 percent. Closer to Christmas, we raise it up to 60 percent. On Christmas, we're at 100 percent. [When you're shopping], you don't want to hear Jingle Bells for the 19th time."
More specifically though, the volume of the music, and music tempo may have an influence on purchase decisions, too.
"Studies show that the slower the tempo, the slower people walk through the store, so the more they put in their baskets and the more they end up buying," Deborah MacInnis, professor of business administration and marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business, told the LA Times. "If the tempo is faster, people walk faster too. They don't stop to look so much, and they don't buy as much."
Interestingly, research also shows that retail music selections shouldn't be made in a vacuum: the other five senses play into how customers perceive the music. So if you decide to play Christmas music but your store smells like summertime, it can create cognitive dissonance—and even affect purchase decisions of customers.
"When inconsistency exists between the ambient scent and music, however, evaluations and behavioral intentions are not affected and in some instances are negatively affected," noted Spangenberg in the Journal of Business Research.
Offer free food samples. It works.
Would you like to try one? In one experiment at Arizona State University, researcher Stephen Nowlis oberserved that offering a free sample didn't just lead to more purchases of the item being offered—it led to more purchases of everything.
"Our research suggests that sampling drives people to want more of anything that's rewarding," Nowlis, a marketing professor, noted in the Journal of Marketing Research. "And that's the managerial implication. These sample tables can help not just manufacturers, but retailers as well. Retailers could benefit because customers who try samples seem to want to have a lot more stuff, as opposed to just more of what they sampled. They want all kinds of things."
Beware of certain touch effects.
The "touch" aspects of a store appear to have several implications for how customers interact with your products. Take, for instance, the "Butt Brush," effect, a term coined by InformeDesign, a website for design and human-behavior research.
"Personal space translated into a retail environment suggests that when a shopper is bumped or jostled while looking at merchandise, they may become uncomfortable, lose interest, and leave the area," researcher Seung-Eun Lee, an assistant rofessor of the retail merchandising program at the University of Minnesota, explains. "Creating maneuvering room for customers eliminates or greatly reduces the butt-brush effect. More maneuvering room extends time customers spend in the store and enhances the probability of purchasing.
Beyond store layout, allowing customers to physically interact with products—picking them up, playing with them, trying them on—may help sales conversion, too. A recent experimented documented by Pyschology and Marketing, a trade journal, found that auto retailers experienced better results when customers actually touched and interacted with the cars. Specifically, the study noted that shoppers who touched the cars would "evaluate products more positively, enjoy the test-driving experience more, and show stronger brand–self connection."
Color choice matters.
Sight is the most obvious sense involved in shopping—but there are some subtleties any retailer can play with. "The first point of interaction is shaped by the color, and color is the most memorable sense," says Leslie Harrington, a color consultant and the executive director of The Color Association, which does color forecasting, education, and advising for brands. "Before anything else, they see color."
Plenty of research has gone into how specific colors make people feel. Most can agree that reds and oranges make customers feel excited, while greens and light blues are calming. Ultimately, though, there's no one color that's going to get your customers to buy. But by matching your store's color scheme to your brand's theme, customers will feel more comfortable.
"Consumers know intuitively if the color and brand connect, and if it's authentic," says Harrington. "If it doesn't connect, it turns them off."