While you're out doing your holiday shopping this month, you might notice a certain scent in the air. No, it's not the Spirit of Christmas (or not just that, anyway). It's the smell of pine. Or orange. Or fresh-baked cookies.
There's a reason for that.
Savvy retailers use all kinds of sensory information to convey their brand, welcome you in, and put you in a frame of mind that they hope will lead to more sales. Their displays are arranged just so. Their wall colors are carefully chosen. The music burbling through their speakers hits all the right notes.
That fresh-baked-cookie smell is part of the package. The use of scents to lure customers in is the latest frontier in sensory marketing, with an entire industry supplying retailers with just the right aroma for their business.
The problem is, the science isn't always there.
"There are [companies that do scent consultation for stores], and I'm not sure they're not just saying, 'You're a clothing store and it's Christmas time, so we're gonna give you Christmas Clothing 103,'" says Eric Spangenberg, an environmental psychologist and the dean of Washington State University's College of Business. "I don't think the science is being done, in many instances, because they're just using intuition. 'It's Christmas time, let's use mulled wine.'"
That's where Spangenberg comes in. One of the pioneers in scent-marketing research, he was among the first to furnish scientific evidence that scents could get people in the buying mood.
In his research, he has pointed out the importance of a couple of key factors in finding the right scent. Pleasantness is one, of course—no one expects a rush on their store if inside it smells like a sweaty dog (though try telling that to the people at Abercrombie & Fitch). Intensity is another; Spangenberg acknowledges that, in using this kind of marketing, retailers run the risk of alienating customers who are especially sensitive to artificial scents.
In a 2006 study, he also established that the scents should match the rest of the shopping experience. Alternatively dousing a Pullman, Washington, department store in the masculine scent of rose maroc and the feminine scent of vanilla, he found that women bought less when the store smelled masculine, and men bought less when the store smelled feminine.
"If [the scent is] not congruent with what people expect, then that can hurt you," he told me in 2007. "If you go into a cheese shop, you expect it to smell like certain cheeses, and it's awesome. If you had that in a clothing store, though, you'd walk right out, because it's not congruent."
So say you're a home-goods store in Switzerland and you want to encourage consumption with a scent. You think you've found just the right aroma. It's pleasant, it's subtle, it's congruent with what you do. Perfect, right?
Spangenberg's latest research, published in the Journal of Retailing, explores another factor: aromatic complexity.
In one part of the study, Spangenberg and some colleagues set up camp at (you guessed it) a home-goods store in Switzerland to test two similar scents that had been determined to be equally pleasant, equally familiar to customers, equally subtle, and equally congruent with the store. One was a simple orange scent; the other was a more complex blend of orange, basil, and green tea.
In 18 days of testing, they found that those who made purchases at the store while it smelled simply of orange spent about 20 percent more. And not only 20 percent more than in unscented conditions, but 20 percent more than in the presence of the more complex scent.
"We isolated these scents, so people liked both scents at the same level," he says. "The only difference you could attribute it to was the complexity."
That store that wants to celebrate Christmas with a mulled-wine scent, then, might think again.
"Even if it's congruent with Christmas, it's complex," he points out. "What about one of the elements of mulled wine? Like cinnamon sticks. Or just spruce. Or just pine."
Coincidentally, on the plane back from Switzerland, Spangenberg says, he came across an article in the inflight magazine about a famous French perfumer, who has made scents for Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent, including one of the best-selling scents in modern history (Spangenberg couldn't remember which). And while most perfumes have two, three-hundred elements in them, how many did the world-famous perfumer put in his best-selling scent?
"Eleven," Spangenberg says.
The question that remains in all of this is: Why? Why do we prefer simple scents to complex ones, and how are we driven to spend more at a retail store because of that?
Spangenberg followed up the Swiss experiment with more testing back on campus in Pullman. In two similar experiments, he and his colleagues had undergraduates attempt to solve a series of computerized anagrams in unscented, orange-scented, and orange-basil-tea-scented conditions.
What they found was that students who tackled the anagrams in an orange-scented room solved more of the problems than those in other conditions, and solved them more quickly.
Spangenberg and his colleagues suspect this might all have to do with something called "processing fluency," or the ease with which your brain processes external stimuli. Other research has suggested that the easier your mind can make sense of a stimulus, the more you tend to like that stimulus, and the more you tend to like things having to do with that stimulus.
All of this can happen on a completely unconscious level, and when it comes to smells, it may be especially far below the surface of your awareness. Spangenberg's report points out that smell is the oldest human sense and the only one that shoots straight to the sensitive hippocampus, rather than being bounced across the hemisphere of the brain first—making it, perhaps, the most primal.
So, in the case of Spangenberg's tests, it might be possible that the more quickly your brain can make sense of a smell, the more you like it, the more you like the store it's in, and perhaps the more brain power you can devote to other tasks (like solving anagrams).
Still, he's hesitant to make any serious neurological claims without more testing.
"There's a lot of evidence to suggest that it does, for whatever reason, use up some degree of our processing capacity to have complex scents," he says, "[But] without conducting an [expensive] FMRI, we're not going to see what the brain's doing."
In the meantime, he says, even companies that aren't considering the latest in environmental psychological research when they douse their stores in musk or roses or mulled wine are probably still doing themselves a favor.
"Retailers are creating an environment that rewards consumers for not shopping online," he points out. "You feel good about being there, and you want to go back there."
That's got to be worth something this season.