How Retailers Use Our Own Senses Against Us

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You walk into your local department store to buy yourself a shirt or a pair of shoes and before you know it, you walk about with a dozen things you didn’t expect to buy. You get home and you start scratching your head. Why did you go and buy all that stuff anyway? You really didn’t intend to, but…what exactly happened in the store?

Most consumers don’t think about what a store smells like  (unless it smells badly, of course) but science and studies tell us that just the way a store smells will influence what we buy and how much we buy. It’s so subtle, but it triggers a reaction in us that, most of the time anyway, we aren’t really even aware of.

Research shows that our sense of smell is our strongest link to emotions. We get feelings from certain scents. Think about perhaps your mother’s favorite perfume, or your father’s pipe. Smelling these things will instantly remind you of home, warmth, belonging, comfort, and love. Of course, smells vary from person to person and we are speaking in general terms here, but it’s thought that people can remember about 10,000 different odors and each of these is capable of triggering a memory in us.

Big retailers know this. They know that scents trigger feelings. They test scents before they are used in their stores. One study conducted by a consumer psychologist, Eric Spangenberg, found that when they used what most would think of as feminine scents, such as vanilla, the sales of women’s clothing doubled in volume. More masculine scents, such as cedarwood, would greatly increase the sales of men’s clothing. Men do not like to hang around stores with feminine scents and women won’t stick around stores with more masculine scents.

There are even consultation firms, such as ScentAir, who specialize in nothing more than finding out what scent will entice the buyers retailers want to target.

For example, one particularly popular clothing store, which targets teens and persons in their early 20’s, sprays their well-tested perfume in healthy doses to attract young men to a certain area of the store. They also spray their models and sales staff with fragrances men find pleasing.

Music is another way retailers have of influencing what you buy. Music helps us to self-regulate our emotions, affects our moods, and can even affect us physically by reducing our breathing and heart rate (read more about unusual ways music can tune up the brain). As consumers, we generally don’t think twice about the music at a particular store. We might sing along or hum if we know the tune, but that music is there for a reason. It’s working on your mind, slowing you down or speeding you up, but most of all, getting you to spend more money.

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One study looked at how the tempo of music would affect restaurant customers. They found that slow music made clients slow down and spend more time eating. Faster music, of course, had the opposite effect. Yet another study looked at wine purchases at stores located in the UK. When researchers played classical French music, sales of French wine vastly outsold German wine. German music, of course, had the opposite effect on sales.

Well, wait, you are saying, if that is true, then why does that popular store with the moose sign always play such loud club music? The retailers at the big moose store believe that young people will put up with loud music, especially if they like it, much longer than older folks. So, older folks leave, and the young people, who they are targeting, stick around.

In contrast, sensory overload causes some people to make more general purchases just so they can get out of the store. For example, grandma wants to buy her teenage grandsons some shirts from that big moose store, but the music is so annoying to her, she doesn’t take the time to look around the store for the best bargains or think too much about what she’s buying. Grandma will most likely just grab a few things that are close to the front of the store (generally, items that retailers are pushing or are the most expensive) so she can get away from that blaring music!

Retail stores use bright lights, especially around the jewelry aisle, to make things seem cheery and those rings super shiny. Whatever music or smell that is in the background, you can bet it’s been well researched to get you to part with as many of your dollars as possible.


SEE ALSO: Germany Introduces a Dramatic New Type of Supermarket


Oh, and if you think you are safe if you avoid retail stores, think again. Our sense of smell can even affect productivity in the office. Colors can also have tremendous effects on our moods. This is why doctors’ offices are usually a pale pink or green, as these colors have a calming effect on people. As for smell, a Japanese study found that when lemon essential oil was diffused throughout office buildings, productivity among data entry clerks increased by a whopping 54 percent! It’s not known exactly how many companies use color or scent to improve productivity, but you can bet they are not in the minority.

So the next time you go shopping for that shirt or pair of shoes, and you find yourself lingering in the jewelry aisle, ask yourself why. It is the lights? The smell? The music? Think twice before you part with more hard earned cash than you planned to.