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Sniff . . . and spend

Scents such as lilac, chocolate and vanilla can seduce us to part with our cash. Ready your nose for the mall.

August 20, 2007|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

When the scent was congruent with the merchandise -- with rose maroc in the men's section and vanilla in the women's section -- shoppers were happier campers than when the scents were reversed: Not only did they evaluate the store and its merchandise more favorably, but they also spent about 50% more time there, bought almost twice as many items and spent more than twice as much money.

Out-of-sync-scent snafus could easily occur in a shopping environment such as a mall, which is a complex intermingling of myriad factors with plenty of chances for unfortunate clashes. Scientists have found that even minor changes -- in odor, color scheme, type and volume of music -- can put a kibosh on congruence, causing shoppers to rate product quality lower and enjoy their shopping less.

In fact, though most researchers have talked about the positive effects of congruence, Bone and coauthor Pam Ellen have suggested that the negative effects of incongruence seem to be what really matter. Adding the scent of suntan lotion might be a plus for a swimsuit promotion, but adding the scent of pumpkin pie would probably be a much bigger minus.

Suppose the first time you ever smelled a wet dog, she had just pulled you out of a lake where you were about to drown. Then you might grow up liking the scent of wet dog.

But if the first time you ever smelled a wet dog is when she had just pulled you into a lake and got your party clothes soaked, you might grow up thinking wet dogs stink.

Many of our judgments about scents are learned, based on our personal experiences and personal associations. Besides, some of us can perceive and identify scents better than others. Women, as a rule, have better noses than men -- which could make them easier prey for scent marketers (they might notice scents men miss) but could also make them tougher sells (if it's meant to smell like lemons and smells like limes, that might sour them on the whole scene).

These differences make life interesting for scent marketers, but researchers have begun to unravel the complexities.

Youth is a factor. In one soon-to-be-published study, a team led by Jean-Charles Chebat of École des hautes études commerciales of Montreal found that shoppers younger than 35 spent more in a suburban mall when it had a pleasant ambient scent than when it didn't. But this was not true for older shoppers -- possibly because the sense of smell declines with age.

The type of shopper being lured is another complicating factor. A 2005 study examined the effect of a pleasant ambient scent on two kinds of shoppers in a suburban mall: impulsive (those who made unplanned purchases) and contemplative (those who didn't).

According to the shoppers' own reports, the contemplative ones spent more money in the presence of scent. Impulsive ones spent less.

Pairing a smell with music can be fruitful, as the Christmas-scent-and-music studies show. (So did a 2001 study pairing a relaxing scent with slow-tempo music and a stimulating scent with fast-tempo music.)

But sensory overload is a risk. In the impulsive-contemplative study, when music was playing and scent was present, both shopper types spent less than they spent in any other situation. Unlike the case of Christmas-y music and Christmas-y scent, music and smell weren't linked in a pleasing, congruent way.

In 1998, Herz published a study in which she found that our senses all evoke equally accurate memories, but scents evoke more emotional ones. Perhaps no study has been more influential in the scent-marketing industry.

One company, ScentAir Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., says on its website: "ScentAir enables businesses to create a unique in-store experience by engaging memory and emotions through patented scent delivery systems." Another, AromaSys Inc. of Lake Elmo, Minn., says it transforms experiences "into emotional memories that give customers a reason to return."

Vogt, of Scent Marketing Institute, says, "The sense of smell goes straight into the limbic system in the brain, which is responsible for emotions and decision-making. Scent can trigger powerful memories in the consumer. How much better does it get?"

This is the theory behind going on a baking spree when you want to sell your house. But do emotional memories really play much of a role in a trip to the mall to buy some toothpaste? And if not, what is going on?

For one thing, consumers' responses to scent are proving not to be purely emotional. In a 2003 study, subjects evaluated familiar and unfamiliar brands presented either with an ambient scent or not. The next day they were tested on their memory of the brands, again with or without scent. Having scent present when they were first evaluating the brands improved subjects' later memory of them, the study found. It also found that the scent wasn't changing the subjects' self-assessed emotional state, but it was increasing their attention -- i.e., they took longer with their evaluations.

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