Should stores have signature smells?

May 07, 2014

While stores have been increasingly using ambient scenting to create a "pleasant" smelling shopper experience, a few stores are looking to signature scents as a differential.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune explored the increasing use of scent branding across stores and elsewhere. The article noted that while casinos and hotels are best known for using scent branding, car showrooms, gyms, banks, sports stadiums, airports and apartment buildings as well as retailers are increasingly employing special scents to upgrade the environment and/or stimulate moods.

For retailers, several recent studies have shown certain appeasing smells — received on a subconscious level versus overt signage — can more subliminally lift moods, encourage shoppers to linger longer and spend more money. The odors, often pumped through heating and air conditioning systems, also promise to distinguish a store amid cluttered messages.

"Smell is our most primal sense," wrote Richard Weening, CEO, Prolitec, a scent-marketing and ambient-scenting firm, in a column for Retail Customer Experience. "It is processed in the same part of the brain that handles our emotions, memory and creativity — the limbic system."

Less than 10 percent of the clients of ScentAir, a leading scent-marketing company, use signature scents but some brands are looking at it to "create or maintain an iconic brand," according to the Trib article.

Among retailers, Abercrombie and Fitch is best known for its signature Fierce fragrance that has led to protests over potential health hazards a few years ago. Hollister, Giorgio Armani, Benetton, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein are also reported to be dabbling in signature smells.

The risks: some scents irritate people, including asthmatics. To environmentalists, scent marketing involuntarily exposes people to questionable chemicals.

But with humans showing they’re able to distinguish over 10,000 different scents, smell is said to bring back memories with a strong emotional resonance, according to the Trib article.

Should or can signature scents be looked on as a differentiator for retailers? What do you think about the presence of ambient smells in stores overall?

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15 Comments on "Should stores have signature smells?"

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Shilpa Rao

Yes, scents do bring back memories and lift the mood. It many times also reminds one of bad experiences, hence can be tricky. Often people link smell to experiences they had or the people they know or have encountered. So certain fragrances can put people off. However, having a signature smell helps brand recall and image.

David Biernbaum

Signature smells are a very smart marketing strategy that should be used by retailers, particularly chain drug, cosmetic companies, and department stores. There was a time when every Walgreens store had a signature smell and customers loved it. Retail chains also need to get back to having signature colors and themes. It seems that these days every retailer looks the same. Sticking with my Walgreens example, I wish that Walgreens was still “green” as it was many years ago. Not every retail chain needs to have red logos. Dare to be different again, retail chains!

Steve Montgomery

We have known for many years that certain aromas help sales – baking bread, cinnamon, popcorn, etc. One of the articles referenced also indicated that that the aroma of fresh baked bread make shoppers more likely to help a stranger retrieve a dropped item.

Will finding the right signature scent mean customers will linger longer, buy more, etc? The scientists (and some retailers) believe it will.

While I am a strong believer in the power of aroma to drive sales of certain food items, I am less certain that a specific scent will drive sales in a clothing or appliance store. I do know that we often see articles about people complaining about individuals who use too much of a scent. If a retailer is going to use scenting as part of its sales efforts, it should be careful not to overpower its customers.

Warren Thayer

Woolworth’s stores when I was a kid smelled like roasted peanuts, because they sold bags of hot roasted peanuts there. That’s as far as I’m willing to go, although perhaps there’s even a risk to people with peanut allergies, so maybe even that’s not a good idea. One thing I do NOT need is more chemicals in the air I breathe. I’d be inclined to stay out of locations pumping chemicals into the air, and I doubt I’m alone. I think this idea stinks.

Dan Raftery

This is a tricky one. There are a lot of variables at work – more than just asthma. Simply put, I think an appropriate ambient odor that is natural can be very appealing. It can also be a negative for food establishments – supermarkets, delis, and restaurants. Nothing wrong with enticing through the nose, but you’d better be also maintaining the housekeeping.

Personally, I get a pretty accurate impression of an imminent dining experience when I walk into a restaurant. Odors of the recent and the lingering give it away. And supermarkets that don’t keep drains, traps and cases clean are just kidding themselves.

Here’s another great one – leather. Just walking by a leather store in a mall is enough to pull me in. But that’s just me.

Frank Riso

I do not think so. Scents can mean different things to the shoppers. I think the store appearance, product, and price should be the signature of a retailer. That being said, I know when I enter a store owned or operated as part of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea company. You can smell the coffee grinders the minute you walk in and in the morning it is a very good scent. Got to love the smell of their coffee….

Anne Howe

We know as marketers that scents work to stimulate emotions and therefore can trigger purchase behavior from a subconscious center of the brain. What we don’t know in this instance can hurt us as marketers, because shopper verbal input about stores that have scented air has to come from the rational side of the brain, which is really not connected to the subliminal feelings we have.

So, the net net is that retailers who are considering scented air need to do different kinds of testing with shoppers to monitor the more visceral reactions.

It is nice to get a food smell trigger in certain situations. But as a shopper who spent years in Abercrombie & Fitch stores when my kids were teens, I can fully attest that the scent was annoying and gave me a headache every time!

Adrian Weidmann

Smell has long been known to be the human sense that creates the strongest and most memorable associations in our brains. As retailers are searching for ways to create differentiators, retailers should definitely leverage this fact to establish brand affinity. The smell of baking bread when you’re selling your home has been known to help buyers “feel at home” – hence increasing the sales potential. Casinos having been using scent for some time with great success.

Smell takes people back to a place and time; your mission is to bring them back to a place and time where their emotions feel comfortable and “at home.” Subtle use of scent is key. Touch and smell are the only two senses that retailers have to differentiate in-store brand experiences from any online channels.

Jack Kurek
Jack Kurek
3 years 4 months ago

Well, it depends on the type of store. Lumber yards smell like fresh cut lumber. Tire stores smell like new tires. Stores like Mrs. Fields Cookies have that fresh baked cookie aroma that draws you in. Fresh fish stores had better smell like fresh fish, not old or you walk out as quickly as you walk in. Up scale clothing/apparel stores should have a hint of perfume or aftershave, depending on women’s or men’s apparel.

Costco takes on the scent of the section you are in (unless they are baking chocolate cakes which can fill the store). Point is…the aroma perceived when entering the store should 1) be such that it draws in the shopper rather than repelling them 2) be “expected” and perceived to enhance and encourage the shopping and buying experience.

Tom Smith
3 years 4 months ago

Scent marketing is important because we recall something that we smell far longer and far more vividly than things that we see. In terms of EMOTION and MEMORY, our sense of smell is by far the most powerful of our five senses.

Our sense of smell is the only sense that goes directly, un-filtered to the RIGHT side of the brain, where emotion and memory live. All other senses go to the LEFT side of the brain.

After one month, we recall 40% of what we see. After one year we recall 60% of what we smell.

As long as it’s consistent with the brand experience and not obtrusive, scent can be a very valuable differentiator for stores.

Kenneth Leung

It could be, but it needs to be in context. Going to a home improvement store and smelling wood is one thing, because that is part of the product offering. I am not sure pumping an artificial scent out of context makes sense, since it ends up like car freshener, the scent just hovers and covers. I think store designers should look at scent as part of the store profile and make sure it is pleasant and drives a memory.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
3 years 4 months ago

Dollars and “scents”? This all may be true — and desirable — from the branding point of view. I am, however, allergic to scents, as in “some scents irritate people, including asthmatics. To environmentalists, scent marketing involuntarily exposes people to questionable chemicals.” So I won’t be able to come to your business if you use scents. Does that make “sense”?

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
3 years 4 months ago

I thought most already did. My two grocery stores smell entirely different (one’s a flower shop and the other a fish market). Another I go to occasionally smells like a bakery. Wallmart and Kmart don’t smell the same (I think it’s the cleaners they use on the floor). Home Depot smells like wood, but Loews doesn’t really have an odor. Cheap hotels have a caustic floral sent that makes me think they are trying to hide dirt.

I don’t think places should smell. If a place smells, I ask myself “why does this place smell?” I don’t think a retailer needs smell to do business. I fear this is just another attempt to sell retail management another silver bullet (which they seem to buy in a heartbeat). Another action taken to avoid the real work of hiring right and training right.

Ralph Jacobson

There are at two human senses left on which physical stores can capitalize: Taste & Smell! Until “SmelliVision” arrives, stores have the opportunity to persuade shoppers to buy! Cosmetics counters have been using demonstrators for years with the scent in mind. Food stores have been sampling tastes also. Why not create “signature” sensory messaging?! How about CPG brands? I can think of at least a couple examples there.

W. Frank Dell II

Scenting seems to have some value, but I question to what extent. Not sure pushing scents in apparel stores is a good idea, but bakery smells in a food store work just fine. A signature scent may be a problem of consistency over time and how many shoppers can differentiate small smell changes. Like most things in retail, some concepts work well, but it should not be assumed it will work for everyone.


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