Your appetite perks up the minute you walk into the supermarket.
There’s the homey smell of roasting chickens as they take a slow turn around the rotisserie, a faint herbal-citrusy scent rising from neatly stacked pyramids of produce, and of course the fresh-baked aroma of yeasty cinnamon goodness floating through the air of the in-store bakery.
What are you really smelling?
Supermarkets, restaurants, and other retailers are pumping more and more artificial fragrances through their stores. The practice goes by lots of different names–retail atmospherics, neuromarketing, sensory branding, olfactory marketing, scent logos–whatever you want to call it, it’s making you spend more money.
Sure, food smells make you hungry, but there’s more to it than that. Your sense of smell is directly connected to the emotional control center of your brain, where it triggers a response that influences your behavior. When a particular scent taps into the right emotions, you’re more inclined to make a purchase.
This stuff really works.
According to the Scent Marketing Institute, Nike was able to boost its customers’ intent to purchase by 80% when certain scents were added to their store environment. Gas stations can triple their mini-mart coffee sales, nightclubs serve more cocktails, and toy stores can get parents to linger longer with the right scent (it’s orange-seawater-peppermint for nightclubs and piña colada for toy-shopping grown-ups— go figure).
Food is a natural for scent marketing. Most of what we perceive as taste actually comes from our sense of smell. Our taste buds perceive only bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami flavors, and we already rely on odor molecules for specific taste sensations. Plus, it’s easy to perfume the air with chocolate or freshly baked bread, and not so simple to devise a suitable smell for sneakers or Legos .
Sensory marketing is nothing new.
A breakthrough in nebulization technology, in which a scented oil is converted into a dry vapor, has made fragranced air more commercially viable, but for years hotels have pumped a little bacon smell into elevator shafts in the morning to boost room service breakfast business, and theme parks have been tempting you to buy popcorn and sweets with scent machines hidden in the landscaping. More recently, Starbucks became so convinced of the power of scent marketing that it nearly abandoned its successful line of hot breakfasts because of the way the smell of heating sandwiches interferes with the coffee aroma.
Reeking of deception
Aggressive scent marketing by a New York supermarket has opened an ethical debate. Brooklyn’s Net Cost market has had great success with five nebulizers that pipe different fragrances through strategic store locations, seeing sales rise by 7% for the corresponding foods. The problem is that the store also disperses cooking smells for items that aren’t prepared on the premises, and for items it doesn’t even carry. Customers have complained that the store is misrepresenting its products, and that they feel misled and manipulated by the scents.
You can get a good overview of retail atmospherics at the website for ScentAir, the scent supplier to Net Cost markets, among its tens of thousands of global installations. ScentAir offers 350 smells by monthly subscription from its fragrance library, although to me, separate entries for funnel cake and waffle cone feels like so much hair splitting.
Last month’s New Scientist looks at the ways in which smells shape our moods, behavior and decisions while barely registering in our conscious lives. Read The unsung sense: How smell rules your life.
From the Gigabiting archives, February, 2011: Food might be the way to a man’s heart, but the smell of food aims a little lower. Read Better than Viagra: Arousal by Food Smells.