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Vestal: Simple scents make good retail sense

It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.

Pine, cinnamon, gingerbread, mulled wine, roasting chestnuts – all the sensory cues that strap us to the mast of seasonal nostalgia. Retailers, hoping to nudge us toward purchase, will mist us with the stuff, through HVAC systems and scent diffusers, but stores often deploy scent and other “peripheral cues” rather clumsily: If it smells “good,” the thinking goes, it will prompt people to buy.

In truth, it’s not quite so simple. Or, rather, it may not be simple enough. Researchers at Washington State University who studied the connection between scents and sales are finding that the makeup of the scent – its simplicity, not its pleasantness or its nostalgic power – seems to be the crucial factor in getting people to buy more.

“A simple scent does not distract from the task at hand,” WSU’s Eric Spangenberg said. “It enhances our ability to complete the task at hand.”

Spangenberg, a professor and dean of the College of Business at WSU, has been studying the peripheral cues used by retailers for decades. Most recently, he and fellow researchers in Switzerland conducted an experiment in which they diffused scents around shoppers in a Swiss home decorations store and tracked sales. Over 18 days, they created three scent patterns: a simple orange scent; a scent of orange, basil and green tea; and no scent.

Shoppers spent 20 percent more on days when they were smelling the simple orange, researchers said. It suggests that the simple scents contribute to “processing fluency” and did not interfere much with the shoppers’ focus on choosing and purchasing.

Can a scent really have that kind of effect? Is it really so difficult to process a complicated scent and make a simple decision at the same time? Spangenberg’s decades of research – as well as the multimillion-dollar industry devoted to strategically nudging shoppers – say yes.

Researchers also conducted a separate series of tests, in which WSU undergrads solved word problems while being exposed to different scents. The students solved problems more quickly when the simple scent was in the air than they did while smelling the complicated scent or no scent.

Scent, color, music and other environmental cues subtly affect decision-making. It’s common for retailers to spread scents around shoppers, just as it’s common for them to use music to try to influence shoppers’ moods.

Consider the thumping, bass-heavy aural assault at certain hip clothing stores. There’s a strategy involved – they want to draw in a certain market, and perhaps repel others.

“If you go to Abercrombie and Fitch, it’s very clear they don’t want me in there,” Spangenberg said.

What’s not so common is for retailers to use science to understand what works and what doesn’t, Spangenberg said. He has been interested in the unconscious influences on behavior since he was a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Washington in the 1980s. “I’ve always been curious about why people do the things they do,” he said.

His career has included research into a wide range of subjects regarding the retail environment and behavior. (Sample title from a 2006 journal article: “Effects of Gender Congruent Olfactory Cues on Approach and Avoidance Behaviors in a Retail Store.”) Along the way, he’s worked on research funded by lots of major retailers and companies. Were there occasions when he was tempted to leave the academy?

“I just stuck to the science of it,” he said. “I didn’t want to get involved in the whole business of it.”

How did scent become one of his specialties?

“To be honest with you, I’m just a smell-sensitive guy,” he said, adding, “If you’ve got a hammer, every problem is a nail.”

In the most recent project, funded by a Swiss retailer, he and his fellow researchers wanted to break down the use of scents to “ground zero.” A problem in studying the influence of scents is that so many of them are mixed – citrus blends, herb blends and the like.

“So if you get an effect, you don’t know if it was the basil and tarragon, or the tarragon alone, or … ” he said.

Spangenberg said they wanted to use only essential oils of things that are both familiar and popular, and they screened dozens of scents to find their selections: orange, basil, green tea.

“We have equally pleasant scents, equally familiar scents, equally liked scents,” he said.

The researchers were not trying to figure out which scents people preferred, but which ones correlated with increases in sales. As with music, Spangenberg said, what people like is not the same as what nudges people to buy. Upbeat music is often enjoyed by shoppers – but it also tends to quicken their pace and move them out of the store more quickly, he said.

So what’s the upshot? Retailers might consider the simple, essential scents of the season – such as pure pine oil – as opposed to combinations of scents, Spangenberg said. And shoppers – especially budget-conscious ones – might consider wearing nose plugs.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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