The Report

How whiffs and riffs can change shopping habits

How whiffs and riffs can change shopping habits

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Scents and sounds that tickle the senses in stores are scientifically selected by retailers to entice customers to linger, browse and buy.

During the recent holiday season, even the most frugal, curmudgeonly and online-savvy shoppers probably found themselves in an actual store at least once.

And inside that store, retailers were tickling their auditory and olfactory senses, trying to entice visitors to stay, browse and buy.

There are all sorts of ways that stores try to maximize customer spending. Two of the biggest involve music and scents featured in the retail environment. There's no perfect formula for what to spray or play, but science is shedding light on what works and what doesn't.

In wine stores, for example, playing classical music makes people spend more money than when a top-forty playlist is featured.

In flower stores, romantic music makes people buy more flowers than pop music. In restaurants, slower music makes people eat slower - in supermarkets it makes them walk slower. Music can even change shoppers perceptions of how crowded a store is, and how much time they have actually spent there. Similarly, smells can elicit specific emotional reactions, bringing people back to fond memories of holidays or seasons past.

Why Don't You Stay Awhile?

The first thing everyone should know about music and smells piped into stores is that no one is brainwashing people to become zombie shoppers, says Eric Spangenberg, the dean of the college of business at Washington State University. The effects are far more subtle.

"The common misconception is that we're doing something mystical or have some black magic effect that makes people into these consumers that can't control their will," he says.

The biggest way that music and smell can alter a shopper's behavior is by keeping him or her in the store longer.

Pleasant music encourages people to linger, wander the aisles, and browse the merchandise. The longer a customer stays inside, the more likely he or she is to buy. If the environment is enjoyable enough for them to stick around during a first visit, they're also more likely to come back and spend more money.

Conversely, the faster the music, the faster customers tend to move through the store, and the less they buy. This is part of the reason that pop music is often not the best choice to be piped into a retail setting, even though it is, by definition, popular.

When it comes to smells, stores need to use something that smells good, but that's not quite enough.

"A pleasant odor that's too complex distracts people from the task of shopping, and it puts their cognitive attention towards the task of smell," Spangenberg says.

With both music and smells, the most effective environment is one in which your shopper just barely notices the cues you're providing.

The best stores give shoppers smells and sounds that are strong enough to detect but subtle enough not to distract. Because really, Spangenberg says, store managers don't want the shopper to be thinking about the music (unless they are in a music store) or trying to identify a particular small (unless someone is at a perfume counter). The goal is to get them looking at the merchandise.

No Magic Formula

What works for one retailer, of course, won't necessarily work for the next store over in the shopping mall. There is no one song or genre that will bring in the big bucks or one scent that will entice hordes of visitors. The formula depends on the store's target customer. Even within that demographic, what works for one customer might make another want to tear his or her hair out. And for many stores, that's fine.

Take Abercrombie and Fitch. Contrary to one of the points made above, the retailer's stores play loud hip hop and pop music up to 88 decibels (four decibels louder than the average C train in Manhattan). Stores are doused with colognes called "Fierce" and "Chase" every 20 minutes, on the dot.

For some, that's not a welcoming atmosphere. In fact, two years ago, protestors stormed a San Francisco Abercrombie and Fitch store brandishing signs reading "Stop the Perfume Pollution." And the federal government certainly has something to say about in-store noise: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employees working for more than eight hours in environments where the sound is over 85 decibels to wear ear protection.

For Spangenberg, the message is clear.

"Abercrombie and Fitch does not want me or my cohort there," he says. And that's probably intentional. "It wouldn't be attractive to the market segment to have a 53-year-old guy in there shopping for sweatshirts."

But to teenagers, the store's key customer set, a store that feels, sounds and smells like a club is inviting.

Understand The Demographic

Abercrombie and Fitch probably did studies to figure out just what kind of music and smells appeal to their audience. Other sophisticated retailers, such as Nordstrom, do the same.

Even online retailers need to think about whether to play music for their shoppers, or not. (The scent part of it obviously doesn't apply, for now.)

Unlike in physical stores, consumers have a choice as to whether or not they want to continue listening to music on e-commerce or Web sites, notes Chien-Jung Lai from the National Chin-Yi University of Technology in Taiwan.

Lai did a study evaluating Web sites that play songs for customers. The tendency among those who encountered music at the very beginning of browsing a site was to turn it off, while those who heard music a few minutes into browsing usually did not adjust the sound, the research shows.

Cue Up The Next Christmas Carol

The effects of music on the shopping experience don't change much during the holidays either, Spangenberg says. Holiday music might be the butt of seasonal jokes, but stores that don't play the usual playlists might actually be losing out.

"People say, 'Oh, I get tired of this crass commercialism of Christmas.' But if stores aren't scenting with Christmas smells, or playing music consistent with the holiday, then consumers are missing it because it's not congruent with their expectations," he says.

As much as everyone complains about being bombarded with holiday tunes starting as early as the day after Halloween, consumers feel cheated without that soundtrack.

And even though Christmas songs mercifully won't echo through the halls of your local stores again until the end of 2013, whatever has replaced the holiday playlist was carefully selected to encourage customers to listen, to linger and to spend.

Image: andwerpenR/Flickr

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure