Whether its supermarkets pumping the smell of freshly baked bread through their aisles, or electronics stores putting all their fancy gadgets out on touchable display, retailers certainly know how to appeal to our senses. But how much does this sensory marketing actually influence what we buy and what we’re willing to pay?
More than you might think, according to research. Several studies have shown that delicious smells, in particular, can have a huge effect on us – and not just when it comes to food. A study by Washington State University, USA, found that sales of women’s clothing doubled when vanilla, a scent perceived by testers as feminine, was diffused through the store, compared to a more "masculine" scent, rose maroc.
Smell of freedom?
Other studies suggest smells could even improve the shopping experience. Academics at Canada's Concordia University used the smell of the seashore to evoke a feeling of open space, and the smell of firewood, reminiscent of an enclosed space, to make shoppers less anxious.
A paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that people would pay more for items, ranging from bath gel to batteries, in a warm room. This “temperature premium” comes about because physical warmth generates emotional warmth, which can mean we value a product more favourably, the academics suggested.
Meanwhile, colour can trick your brain too – if you’re a man. In the UK, an Oxford University paper found that if men saw an advert where the prices were written in red, rather than black, they assumed they were getting a bargain. Women, however, become suspicious. “Men are less practised shoppers (than women) and they see the red as a useful shortcut,” claims co-author Nancy Puccinelli.
And that easy-listening they play in your local supermarket? It might mean you end up buying more than you planned. A study in the Journal of Marketing found that the speed of background music in a supermarket can affect sales.
When the music was slower customers walked around the store more slowly too, picking up more products as they went. In fact, on slow music days, sales went up by an average 38%. The type of music matters too: wine lovers bought more expensive bottles when classical tunes were played, compared to pop songs, according to US research from Texas Tech University.
More food for thought
Restaurants are in on the act too. While you’re more likely to remember the the food or how staff treat you, there are subtle things going on in the background which affect your experience.
Customers tend to spend longer in restaurants when the music is slow, and end up spending more on food and drinks. Again, they tend to spend more when classical music is played, compared to pop or no music at all.
The timing of purchases can also be influenced by the particular sense an advertiser is appealing to. A 2017 study by Brigham Young University in the USA found that if advertisers highlighted sight and sound – the “distant” senses – it led to people delaying purchases. Appealing to “close” senses like touch and taste tempted people to buy earlier.
So next time you’re out shopping, take a moment to think about all the ways you are bombarded with information and watch out for these sensory tricks of the trade.