February 27th, 2005

Dollars and Scents

By Richard Morin
Washington Post

What do profits smell like?

Like oranges with a hint of lemon, say three business professors who studied
how various scents affected buying patterns.

Under certain conditions, a citrus smell seemed to magically open the pocketbooks
of shoppers and increase their desire to spend, according to Jean-Charles Chebat
of the HEC Montreal graduate school of business, Richard Michon of Ryerson University
in Toronto and L.W. Turley of Western Kentucky University. Their findings appear
in the latest issue of the Journal of Business Research.

But retailers with a nose for sales should not order industrial-size vaporizers
and fill them with orange scent just yet. The researchers cautioned that the
citrus smell provoked additional spending only if stores were moderately busy.
If they were too crowded or too empty, the power of citrus disappeared. "Crowds
have their own smells," Chebat said in an e-mail. "Citrus can counterbalance
the effects of such smells to a certain extent. However, it has its limitations.
As for the least crowded environments, citrus may be too arousing."

Researchers have known for years that external stimuli can subconsciously affect
how eager we are to buy, and our emotions can be enhanced or suppressed by our
surroundings. The impact of background music on shoppers is well documented:
Loud rock music, for example, seems to encourage quick decisions and impulse
buys while softer sounds keep people in the store longer. Lighting, too, can
affect buyers’ moods by making them feel better—or worse—about the shopping
environment.

But until now, few people have studied how smell influences shoppers, Michon
said. One reason is that retailers and researchers agree that the effect of
an ambient odor is powerful but difficult to predict. In fact, psychologists
believe that smell is the most powerful of the five senses in provoking both
strongly positive and negative emotional reactions.

Another reason: It’s so hard to test how smell impacts shopping decisions because
it’s hard to replicate real buying conditions in a laboratory. So these researchers
took the experiment out of the lab and into the mall, conducting a novel real-life
test of their theories at a shopping center near Montreal.

They set up a series of six scent stations around the mall. The stations remained
in place for three weeks. Each week each station would diffuse one of two scents
around the mall, taking care to make the odor just "below the threshold
of awareness," Chebat said. The citrus scent—a mix of orange, lemon
and mandarin—was dispersed the first week, lavender the second, while data
was collected under normal conditions on a third week to provide a baseline
for comparison. Several hundred shoppers were asked to answer a questionnaire
that helped the researchers evaluate perceptions of products, the mood of the
shoppers, the overall impressions of the mall and the amount of merchandise
purchased under different scent conditions.

They found that shoppers who sniffed the citrus scent during the first week
were more likely to view the mall as livelier, more pleasant and more stimulating
(the lavender bouquet produced a marginally positive reaction). These citrus-enhanced
feelings were money in the bank for the retailers: Under the heady influence
of the aroma, each shopper spent about $20 U.S. more per outing, the research
team reported.

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