Studies & Research
A few years back, the Sunday Times in England asked 1,500 people about the biggest irritations in their lives.
Tops on the list was junk mail, followed by slow drivers, people gabbing away on cell phones, and too few checkout lines at the supermarket.
Also on the list and cited by 17% of people - about 1 in 6 - was piped-in music in stores and restaurants.
Most of the time, we don't notice the canned tunes filling the air in the grocery store or mall unless they're too loud, or unless a favorite - or loathed - selection comes on. It's white noise, filler, a sort of acoustic wallpaper.
But that doesn't mean that we aren't affected by it.
In a media study measuring consumer interest in and acceptance of video displays in retail environments, 29% of the consumers who had seen video in a store say they bought a product they were not planning on buying after seeing the product featured on the in-store video display. (Arbitron, 2005)
According to an Arbitron retail media study, 42% of consumers who have seen video in a store say that, in the future, they would choose to shop in stores with video screens versus those without; and more than half of the consumers who have watched in-store video feel that more stores should run video programming. (Arbitron, 2005)
80% of consumers feel that video displays that feature product or sale information are helpful. (Arbitron Retail Media Study, 2005)
Are profits and productivity hiding right under your nose? Here's how to take advantage of scent marketing.
Regardless of your work environment, it's usually obvious that its appearance (lighting, paint colors, etc.) and sound (background music, noise, etc.) can have significant effects on your staff's productivity and morale, as well as your customers' comfort and willingness to buy.
It may be less obvious to business owners, however, that they should also be putting serious thought toward how that environment smells.
It's easy to forget about smell, of course, because so much of it happens at a subconscious level. When it comes to evoking emotions and memories, though, smell is the king of the senses. (If you've ever had a scent trigger a flood of memories about your childhood, or an old friend, or somewhere you used to live, you've witnessed this effect firsthand.)
The power of smell to trigger an experience is related to the olfactory nerve's location near the amygdala (the area of the brain associated with emotional experiences) and the hippocampus (associated with memory). It's almost like scents have a shortcut to those parts of your brain that your other senses don't.
How important is smell to your business? Consider these examples.
- A Net Cost supermarket in Brooklyn, N.Y., installed ScentAir machines on the walls to infuse the store with aromas of foods that would entice customers, such as grapefruit in the produce section, or chocolate in the candy aisle. The stores merchandise coordinator reported that sales went up at least 7% since they were installed.
- In one study, two identical pairs of shoes were placed in two identical rooms (one scented with a floral fragrance, the other not). By an 84% margin, customers preferred the shoes in the scented room, and estimated their value to be on average $10.33 higher than the identical shoes in the unscented room.
- In the mid-90s, Dr. Alan R. Hirsch conducted an experiment with scented and unscented slot machine areas in a Las Vegas casino, and found that the amount gambled in the scented area increased by more than 45%.
- A convenience store that started pumping the smell of coffee near the gas pumps saw coffee purchases increase 300%.
- Various studies have found that pleasant ambient odors have a variety of positive effects on people's behavior. One study found that shoppers were more willing to help strangers outside of a bakery than a clothing store. Another found people were more willing to help when in the presence of appealing scents like roasting coffee or baking cookies.
- Researchers from Northumbria University found that subjects performing various information processing tasks did so faster and more accurately when their cubicle was diffused with of rosemary essential oil.
- Volunteers in one study performed puzzle-solving tasks 17% faster after exposure to floral fragrances.
- According to another study, people can remember a scent and its related memory with 65% accuracy after 12 months, while visual recall was only 50% accurate after just four months.
- 63% of MRI patients who inhaled a vanilla aroma reported reduced anxiety before a procedure, compared to just 4% of patients who didn't, according to one study.
Sounds like something you should probably look into, doesn't it?
Major companies have long understood the power of scent marketing. Cruise lines and hotels, for example, use branded scents in their rooms and then include those same scents in their follow up mailings to evoke fond vacation memories. They've done the research, and they go through these efforts because they've found a direct correlation between scent marketing and increased sales.
And the remarkable thing is that it seems to work almost regardless of the scent (as long as it's something pleasant and appropriate), and it seems to have positive effects almost across the board: people are happier, more productive, more accurate, more prone to buy, more likely to remember, etc.
Keep It Simple
It can be tempting to concoct a complicated fragrance blend to evoke all the various aspects of your brand ("Ergamot, peach blossom, guaiac wood gardenia, vanilla, sandalwood, orange flower..."), but it actually turns out that simple scents work best.
Researchers from Washington State University and the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland found that customers spent on average 20% more in the presence of a simple scent (such as orange) than in the presence of either a complicated scent (such as orange-basil with green tea) or no scent at all. In a separate experiment, WSU researchers found that students could solve word problems faster when exposed to a simple scent than with a more complicated scent.
The researchers believe that the simpler scents (such as citrus or pine) contribute to "processing fluency," allowing the brain to more easily process and understand the scent. As a side benefit, simple scents are far more cost effective than custom-designed signature scents, which can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.
Some popular choices among small retailers include tea, grass, fig, lemon, and citrus. For office environments, effective choices for increasing productivity and alertness include lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary, geranium, grapefruit, and tea tree. And in high-stress situations, fragrances such as lavender, orange, vanilla, or green tea can be used to relax participants and reduce tension.
Consider Your Context
No matter what the research says about any particular scent, you should remember that smell is very subjective, and depends heavily on both the customer and the context. Food smells can be very appealing, for example, but they would seem disturbing in a clothing store.
A home-improvement chain in Germany discovered that customers began rating their salespeople as more knowledgeable after they started pumping the scent of fresh-cut grass into their stores.
However, if you're running a surf gear shop, you shouldn't assume that fresh-cut grass will have the same effect on your own customers. You'd have better luck with an ocean-themed scent that makes the store feel more authentic, and reminds people of their own favorite surfing experiences.
Don't Overdo It...But Don't Underdo It Either
Even the most pleasant smells can be overwhelming in high quantities, and a "wall of fragrance" upon entering an environment can turn people off (and ensure they don't come back). In most cases, you don't want your customers to consciously notice the smell; it should be peripheral, something that contributes to the overall experience without being distracting.
However, you also don't want to be too subtle with it either. Multiple studies on the effect of scents on perception and behavior found that the effects actually increased with the concentration of the fragrance (up to a point, of course).
It may help to think about scent as being similar to background music. Loud music can be frustrating, but if the volume's too low the effect is lost entirely. Your best bet is to aim for a middle ground that's neither hiding the scent nor assaulting people with it.
Scent Marketing Isn't Just For the Elite
Scent marketing can feel like it's out of reach for everyday business owners, but there's actually nothing stopping you from starting a "strategic olfactory initiative" in your own business.
For example, Scentsy, an Inc. 5000 company, sells a wide variety of scented flameless candles with decorative ceramic warmers, as well as a variety of related products that allow you to get started in scent marketing at relatively low cost and with almost no effort.
By now there are lots of credible studies showing that ambient scent alters behavior. There’s the original Cinnabon Effect study and its recent extension, and some nice work on perfume wearing and spontaneous helpfulness.
In the “Zombies at the Mall” chapter of What the Nose Knows, I took a look at the scientific literature on scent marketing. There too, credible research shows that scent can increase dollars spent as well as boost positive perception of the mall, the stores, and their products.
A common theme in these studies is that the effects on behavior in general, and consumer purchasing in particular, are driven by changes in mood. Thus, the sweet, warm, delicious smell of fresh-from-the-oven Cinnabon buns put people in a more positive mood and makes them more likely to respond to a request for assistance.
This is a plausible but rather limited explanation. Limited because it fails to explain the differential effectiveness of scents that are equally pleasant, and that should therefore produce equal improvements in mood. For example, business school professor Eric Spangenberg found that a masculine scent increased sales of men’s clothing, and decreased sales of women’s items. The reverse effect was found for a feminine scent.
Clearly, something more than emotion is involved. (This is an ongoing theme of WTNK: psychologists for years have overemphasized the role of emotion in odor perception. More and more research shows that people respond to smell cognitively—that is, they compare, contrast, evaluate, interpret and judge.)
The best alternative explanation involves “congruency.” The idea here is that a smell that “goes with” the merchandise on display will enhance consumer perceptions of the goods and increase sales, while a mismatched scent will have no effect, or even decrease sales. Congruency explains Spangenberg’s shopping results much more satisfactorily than does an appeal to mood.
Now the man himself—Spangenberg along with three colleagues—has found perhaps a better explanation. The new idea is “processing fluency,” technically defined as “the experienced ease of processing a stimulus.” Studies find that labels, logos and ads that are more easily processed, i.e., which are more “fluent,” have a bigger impact on consumer perception and sales. Spangenberg’s newly published study pushes the concept into the olfactory realm.
The researchers first came up with a pair of smells—orange, and basil-orange-green tea—that differed in complexity, but were alike in all other key respects. These two scents, along with a no-odor control condition, were diffused into a Swiss home goods store on different days. Random shoppers who had been in the store at least five minutes and who had bought something were given a brief questionnaire.
The bottom line: shoppers in the simple scent condition spent 10 Swiss francs (roughly $10) or more than did shoppers in the complex scent or no-odor conditions. This is a substantial effect and it happened largely without the shoppers being aware of the scent.
Back in the lab, Spangenberg’s group did several follow-up experiments to pin down the precise nature of the effects. The simple odor out-performed the complex and no-odor conditions when it came to a cognitive task involving anagrams. Simple odor results in more anagrams completed and at a faster rate. Finally, the results of the field study were confirmed in a simulated shopping experiment. The authors conclude:
Our results also show that, contrary to conclusions drawn by many retailers attempting to implement prior olfactory research findings, not just any pleasant scent will work to a firm’s benefit. The ambient scents used for this research were equally pleasant, but produced remarkably different outcomes based on scent complexity.
We seem at last to be getting away from the Land of Mood and into a zone where we can use sensory analysis to engineer more effective fragrances for scent marketing.
The study discussed here is “The power of simplicity: Processing fluency and the effects of olfactory cues on retail sales,” by Andreas Herrmann, Manja Zidanseka, David E. Sprotta, & Eric R. Spangenberg, published online in Journal of Retailing, September 17, 2012.
What do callers want to hear once they’ve been placed on hold?
Recent online polls* conducted at BusinessVoice.com provide some insight.
Nearly one-third of callers - 32.1% - prefer to hear details on sales, specials, closeouts and rebates, while 28.3% want information and reminders about new and existing products and services. Humor is a popular choice as well, with 18.8% of respondents saying they’d like a good laugh while on hold. 15.1% indicated they would rather hear information on how a company’s products are different from those of their competitors, and 5.6% prefer helpful tips (healthy living, travel, car care, etc.).
“These poll results are a good guide,” said Jerry Brown, BusinessVoice president. “They can help companies see what types of content they should be focusing on in their On Hold Messaging and other forms of marketing.”
Humor was also the topic of a separate poll. The question: “How does the use of humor on hold affect your perception of the company you’re calling?” Nearly 82% replied “positively”: 48.4% think companies that use humor are trying to make their callers’ hold time as enjoyable as possible, while 33.3% say they like a company that can laugh at itself and its image. Of those who had a negative opinion of humor on hold, 15.1% selected this response: “I’m calling to conduct business, not to be entertained.” And 3% cautioned that humor could offend some callers.
A third poll question asked “What is the longest you’ve ever waited on hold?” Three out of four respondents – 74.7% - selected “more than 10 minutes,” while 10.8% experienced a maximum hold time of 5 to 10 minutes, 9.9% were on hold 3 to 5 minutes, and 4.5% waited under 3 minutes.
Poll Questions, Answers, and Breakdown of Response by Percentage
What would you prefer to hear while on hold?
32.1% - Details on sales, specials, closeouts and rebates
28.3% - Reminders about the company's new & existing products
18.8% - Humor
15.1% - Info on how the company's products are different from those of competitors
5.6% - Helpful tips (healthy living, travel, car care, etc.)
How does the use of humor on hold affect your perception of the company you’re calling?
48.4% - Positively. They're trying to make my hold time as enjoyable as possible.
33.3% - Positively. I like a company that can laugh at itself and its image.
15.1% - Negatively. I'm calling to conduct business, not to be entertained.
3% - Negatively. It could offend callers.
What is the longest you’ve ever waited on hold?
74.7% - More than 10 minutes
10.8% - 5 to 10 minutes
9.9% - 3 to 5 minutes
4.5% - Under 3 minutes
* Four to five options were offered as answers to each question. Each poll question appeared online for approximately three months.