Dollars and Scents: How In-Store Aromas Can Boost Sales

When apparel retailers want to boost sales, they usually do things like invest in more TV ads or revamp merchandising displays. But when Hunkemo¨ller wanted to ramp up its lingerie sales, the Netherlands-based retailer did something that might seem counterintuitive — it began scenting its stores with the aroma of chocolate. And according to the Dec. 2013 issue of the POPAI Global Retail Trends Report, this tactic paid significant dividends, with average purchases increasing by 20 percent.

In fact, there is an abundance of peer-reviewed research that documents the causal link between scent and behavior, emotion and memory. As author Brenda Soars notes in the International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, "smell is the quickest way into the brain." Indeed, scent is arguably a more primal — and powerful — faculty than many of us fully appreciate.

While the physiology of scent has been well understood for decades, there is something a bit mysterious about its influence on behavior and cognition. For example, research shows that the mere presence of ambient scent in a store can cause visitors to feel better served by associates. One top retailer in Europe diffused an ambient scent in its checkout areas and found that this contributed to a sense of time-compression among shoppers in the space — in other words, they felt that they had been waiting in line for a shorter period of time than those in the control group who had not experienced an ambient scent effect. Another study showed people stayed longer, spent more money and felt more satisfied when in a scented space.

As you start to contemplate making more conscious use of scent in your stores, the first step is to look at precisely what you want to accomplish. Some apparel chains are content to scent only the entrances, thereby creating what might be thought of as a "welcome effect." By offering a nice (and subtly memorable) sense impression each time a shopper enters or exits, these retailers aim to bolster customer experience and loyalty. Another goal might be to boost sales of a particular item by suffusing the display with a congruent scent. A few years ago, bebe stores, inc., spiced up the launch of its new signature fragrance by wafting the sensuous smell through select areas of its U.S. stores.

However, it is important to make sure your fragrance choice matches your brand and other objectives. Toward that end, it can be helpful to understand the "primary colors" of ambient scenting — otherwise known as the six scent families — and their likeliest emotional and cognitive effects.

For example, the citrus family — lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, bergamot and clementine — is often described as crisp and clean. As Soars noted in her article, research shows that the aroma of grapefruit tends to have an uplifting, energizing and refreshing effect; lemon can relieve distrust and apathy; and lime can have a cheerful, uplifting and purifying effect. Think about the adjectives used to capture the essence of your apparel brand. Do they match any of the above? If so, you have a possible starting point for a signature scent.

Floral scents such as rose, jasmine, gardenia, orange blossoms and violet are often most appropriate for upscale boutiques. If your store is the kind of place where shoppers might expect to find a bouquet of fresh flowers, a floral scent might be a natural fit. However, if your stores are full of eco-friendly, outdoors-oriented products — hiking boots, fleece jackets and the like — the outdoorsy scent family could be most appropriate. These fragrances include woodsy notes such as pine and cedar, green notes such as fresh green grass and mint and herbal notes of basil and sage.

Fruity fragrances are bright, uplifting, often youthful, and tend to be anxiety reducing as well. Examples include peach, apple, pear, plum and apricot. Imagine a merchandise display featuring artfully arrayed handbags printed with images of apples or pears; an accompanying fruity fragrance could highlight the product nicely. The ozonic family could be likened to "the scent in the air after a thunderstorm." It is usually described as airy and fresh, subtle and light. Ozonic fragrances are often used in small spaces, perhaps to reinforce the impression of a fresh, breezy and open atmosphere. They can be ideal for small apparel stores. Lastly, gourmand aromas like coffee and chocolate are designed to convey the scent dimension of a food. As noted, they can boost shoppers' appetites for non-food merchandise, too.

But the nature of the fragrance isn't the only consideration. Today, leading-edge scent-delivery technologies allow apparel stores to have greater control over scent intensity and duration. By using devices that convert fragrance solutions into plumes of ultra-fine micro-droplets, it is possible to create scent effects that blend with and uniformly treat the air in indoor spaces using just a tiny amount of hypoallergenic liquid. These devices, which can be wall-mounted or run through the store's HVAC system, can treat selling areas of all sizes.

And just as apparel stores must compete with a wide range of other tenants for shoppers' finite dollars, they are often in competition for their share of the scent environment as well. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked in a store located near other tenants with strong smells, such as sandwich shops, candle sellers or the makers of cinnamon buns. The powerful odors emanating from these shops can creep into adjoining  businesses.

And so there is an important side benefit to adopting advanced scenting systems: some formulations  allow you to cancel, rather than mask, malodors that threaten the integrity of your customer experience. In other words, you can stop some other retailers from inadvertently "branding" your own store environment with their unwanted smells.

All of us prefer pleasant smelling places, and we associate scents with specific people, places, products and experiences. Ambient scenting represents an untapped opportunity to express creativity and evoke moods. The key is to take an informed approach that matches brand attributes with the primal power of smell, while enhancing your customers' shopping experience.

Roger Bensinger is executive vice president of Prolitec, whose AirQ LEED enabling service is a provider of ambient scenting services to retailers and other businesses, with more than 60,000 installations across the globe.

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