My Nose Made Me Buy It: How Retailers Use Smell (and Other Tricks) to Get You to Spend, Spend, Spend

Think you're using your head to make purchases? Think again.

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Has this happened to you? You set out for the mall with your list of holiday gifts. You walk into a store and you’re hit with the smell of cinnamon, you hear Christmas carols playing — and suddenly you purchase five cashmere sweaters, six scarves and the three-for-one sock special featuring reindeer that you had not intention of buying in the first place.

Don’t blame yourself. Blame your nose.

Holiday buying is a very calculated process. Retailers know what subconscious factors get customers more interested in their products. For instance, research shows that people are more often physically drawn to warm-colored displays featuring yellows and reds, but overall, they rate cooler colors like blues and greens more favorably. This means that warm colors are better for the spontaneous purchases and getting the customer to come into the store, whereas cool colors attract the customer with a plan, who knows what they want but will take the time to look through the options.

(MORE: 11 Ways to Burn Off Calories With Holiday Cheer)

Such sensory branding is becoming a bigger part of stores’ consumer marketing. Retailers often rely on music and colors to create a mood, but now they’re targeting the other sense, smell, to get customers to make a more sophisticated connection to the brand through their shopping experience — they even have a name for it: olfactive branding. The sense of smell is still less understood than the other senses, but studies show it plays a role in how we perceive our surroundings. For instance, the olfactory bulb that’s responsible for processing smells, is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is related to memories and emotions. That’s why smell has the power to trigger emotional memories (and why the scent of someone’s perfume can bring up memories of that person). And good memories may make you more likely to purchase items that remind you of those happy emotions.

“When we think about any experience, whether it’s personal or commercial, our sense of smell so profoundly plays into how we perceive and make judgements on the experience,” says Ed Burke, director of training and communications for ScentAir, a company that develops scents for specific retailers and hospitality brands from Hugo Boss to Marriott Hotels. 

ScentAir meets with its clients to develop a scent that’s in line with what the brand’s customers and with what the company is trying to accomplish. Then, ScentAir’s team of designers and scientists tailor a scent to meet the business’ goals in a process similar to the way a store sets up it’s visual floor plan. According to Burke, often the client and ScentAir imagine a specific customer, and what the store wants from that customer–which is usually repeat visits. “We can boil it down to the customer the brand is aspiring to connect to. We look at who is buying on a regular basis, what music they like, how often they buy technology, etc. Then we start to get creative,” says Burke.

For instance, one store may want a fresh air scent, and another may want the store to smell like fresh cotton. If ScentAir is working with a department store, it can get even more complicated. Specific scents can be customized for specific departments, such as a baby powder smell for the child’s section or a coconut scent in swimwear (which is what Bloomingdale’s uses) and lilac in the lingerie department. It’s hard not to feel compelled to pick up a bikini while you’re immersed in the smell of coconuts and thinking about your favorite beach.

Take the luxury fashion brand, Hugo Boss, which chose its scent from ScentAir about five years ago after testing three different smells in their storeroom. One significantly stood out—a musky smell with a little bit of citrus—and about 3.5 years ago, the scent was put in every single store. “We really wanted to have a signature scent in our stores. We wanted it to feel like coming home,” says Ward Simmons, head of brand and communications for Hugo Boss. “When you walk into our store you can see the layout, you can touch and feel the clothes, you can hear the music. The one thing that was missing was the smell. It was the last ingredient to make people feel at home and welcome in the store.”

Most of the sales at Hugo Boss are from male customers, but women still shop at the store, and executives didn’t want to exclude them. “We wanted people to come in and feel like it was a men’s club, but we didn’t want women to feel intimidated. Women actually react better to it than men because they take the time to notice it,” says Simmons. “It’s the same scent everywhere, so you can walk in and think, ‘oh, I am in a Hugo Boss store.’”

During the holidays, ScentAir receives many requests for seasonal smells. This year, the company is creating a specific holiday signature scent for Old Navy in about 100 of their stores. “It’s a very nostalgic time of year, and there are many cues we can pull from in the smell world,” says Burke. Common scents used to create a seasonal smell use notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, evergreen, cranberry, citrus, and cedar.

Sure, we can’t know for sure that a specific scent will urge us to open our wallets, but it can make us feel more comfortable at a store, and that can improve sales in the long run. Hugo Boss received such great feedback about its store scent, that the company made a candle with the smell that they sold last year during the holidays. And they have no plans to get rid of its scent anytime soon.

So the next time you’re out shopping, take a sniff, and see if you can spot the odorizer. Some place scent machines above the door of their stores, while others rig the scent through the ventilation system.

And get ready to start buying.