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The Art & Science of Retail Scents

Furniture World Magazine


When a national furniture retailer wanted to move more product, the U.S.-based company did something fairly unconventional—it pumped fragrance into its stores rather than just pumping more money into TV ads. While the line between correlation and definitive causation can be difficult to draw, the chain was bullish about the sales uptick it experienced during its scenting pilot program. So much so that it rolled out ambient scenting systems in 100 stores last year.

Dollars and Scents

And in fact, scientific research has shown that there is something to an assumption that has been widely held within the furniture industry for years: namely, that the smell of fresh-baked cookies or other pleasant aromas can have a positive effect on the customer experience and, by extension, sales. In a famous study by the marketing researcher E.R. Spangenburg and colleagues, pumping a pleasant scent into a simulated retail environment had a distinctive effect, with the research subjects being more likely to say good things about the environment and products in a scented room versus an unscented one. Other research, such as that published by Mattila and Wirtz in 2001, also suggests that pleasant ambient scent can improve customer evaluations of a store’s environment. And like the aforementioned furniture chain, various retailers over the years have noticed strong correlations between their scenting programs and sales increases. According to the December 2013 issue of the POPAI Global Retail Trends Report, the Netherlands-based retailer Hunkemöller ramped up sales of its lingerie (the average customer ticket size increased by 20 percent) simply by scenting its stores with the aroma of chocolate.

Brand Considerations

Precisely how to scent your store requires a lot of thought and attention to detail. Generally speaking, furniture stores want to aim for a warm, homey environment—something that makes customers feel as though they are in a comfortable, well-appointed home, as opposed to a sterile conveyor of beds, sofas and chairs. Little wonder so many furniture stores like the idea of baking cookies in a bid to create an appealing experience. From a logistical standpoint, however, furniture stores are not in the baking business and should not have to run an oven 24/7. Even if they were able to do so, it is difficult to efficiently and evenly distribute the aroma of fresh-baked goods throughout a cavernous furniture showroom.

There are cultural considerations as well, depending on where in the world the furniture store is located. In the United States and Latin America, for example, people tend to love sweets, from chocolate chip cookies to piña coladas. In Europe, however, people generally prefer to avoid wearing sweet perfumes or using sweet ambient scenting formulations. In other words, what some people consider to be a nice aroma, others from a different cultural context are more likely to see as cloying.  Likewise, tastes and preferences around scent intensity can be culturally determined. In Latin America and the Middle East, people do not mind wearing stronger fragrances or scenting commercial environments fairly heavily. In Asia, people tend to prefer a very light touch when it comes to matters of scent.

Brand considerations, too, can play a significant role. If a particular furniture brand is flashy, in your face and youthful—perhaps using bold colors and funky shapes—the retailer might be wise to scent that product display with a brash and “loud” fragrance. The idea here would be to call out to customers in a multi-sensorial way. But what if the products on display were more elegant, demure and mature with a target audience of baby boomers? Here, a more subtle approach would likely be most appropriate.

Fragrance Choice

Fragrance choice should be matched to the store’s brand and other strategic objectives. Toward that end, it can be helpful to understand the “primary colors” of ambient scenting—otherwise known as the six scent families—and their likeliest emotional and cognitive effects. For example, the citrus family—lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, bergamot and clementine—is often described as crisp and clean. Research shows that the aroma of grapefruit tends to have an uplifting, energizing and refreshing effect, while lime can be cheerful, uplifting and purifying. Think about the adjectives used to capture the essence of your furniture brand (or of specific product lines or categories). Do those adjectives match the general description of the citrus family? If so, you have a possible starting point for a signature scent or product-specific fragrance.

At bare minimum, citrus family scents that convey “clean” and “fresh” can be a good idea for clearance areas, as shoppers sometimes have unconscious concerns about the quality of items in these areas.
Meanwhile, floral scents such as rose, jasmine, gardenia, orange blossoms and violet are often most appropriate for upscale furniture stores or room settings. If the product setting is one in which shoppers might expect to find a bouquet of fresh flowers, a floral scent might well be a good fit. However, if the room is full of patio or other outdoors-oriented furniture, the outdoorsy scent family could be most appropriate. These fragrances include woodsy notes such as pine and cedar, green notes such as fresh green grass and mint, and herbal notes of basil and sage.

Fruity fragrances are bright, uplifting, often youthful, and tend to be anxiety reducing as well. Examples include peach, apple, pear, plum and apricot. Imagine a room with a large setting of peach-colored furniture; here, the subtle aroma of peach could highlight the furniture quite nicely. For its part, the ozonic family could be likened to “the scent in the air after a thunderstorm.” It is usually described
as airy and fresh, subtle and light. Ozonic fragrances are often used in small spaces to reinforce the impression of a fresh, breezy and open atmosphere.

Lastly, gourmand aromas like coffee and chocolate are designed to convey the scent dimension of a food. As noted in the lingerie company study, they can boost shoppers’ appetites for non-food merchandise as well. Gourmand-family fragrances are an obvious choice for showroom areas where dining room or kitchen furniture is on display. Generally, homier fragrances work well.

Along with the general considerations above, fragrances are known to have specific effects. Some make people feel energized, while others are soothing to the point of putting people to sleep. In one Duke University study the scent of lavender relaxed the subjects every bit as much as a physical massage. Lavender is perfectly suited for areas in which bedroom furniture or mattresses are on display, as some furniture stores have already discovered.

As a caveat, however, it is important to remember that scent, like visual merchandising, is not about “one size fits all.” Just as it would be absurd for a store designer to say, “All furniture store entrances should have a red color palate,” it is simply not the case that every bedroom set should be scented with lavender, or that every furniture retailer would be wise to adopt a signature fragrance based on fresh-baked cookies. Rather, context is king. Different stores have different customers, products and needs.

Delivery Systems

How to go about scenting different parts of the same store is another relevant question. Today, leading-edge scent-delivery systems allow furniture stores to control scent intensities in much the same way that they can dial the volume of in-store music up or down. Tabletop-, wall- or ceiling-mounted scent delivery devices can be used to strategically deploy appropriate fragrances in room settings, semi-enclosed furniture displays or specific sections of the store. You can also scent an entire showroom area using a single HVAC-integrated unit.

But whether you are scenting individual rooms, larger sections of the showroom or the entire selling area, in-store scenting devices ideally should be computer-controlled and programmable. This allows you to take into account traffic flow and store hours to ensure a consistent scent experience as well as to keep scenting costs down. Micro-technology offers the ability to ramp up this efficiency even further. By converting aqueous or non-aqueous liquids into plumes of ultra-fine droplets (measuring about 1 micron in diameter), some scenting devices create scent effects that blend with and uniformly treat the air using just a tiny amount of hypoallergenic liquid.

This approach is far more efficient and effective than old-school methods such as candles, incense sticks and plug-in air fresheners. The flexibility today’s microtechnology systems offer is important from a customer experience standpoint as well: An overpowering fragrance can backfire by irritating potential buyers; computer-controlled systems give you the power to control scent intensity and maintain the integrity of the experience. Just as furniture stores are not in the business of baking cookies for the scent effect, they are not in the business of laboriously and inefficiently spraying aerosols to try to maintain a particular scent effect in the store.

Of course, any fragrances employed should be hypoallergenic, gentle and documented as being completely safe. These days, sensitive customers are well aware of the dangers of the kinds of cheap air fresheners often used in the home. In one University of Washington study of mass-market air fresheners, researchers found toxic volatile organic compounds such as ethanol, ethyl acetate, benzaldehyde and acetone. The good news is that fragrance can be produced from ingredients, and produced in quantities, that are perfectly safe and involve neither volatile organic compounds nor sooty fragrance oil.

Scenting Strategies

Scenting strategies can also hinge on other considerations. Christmas is an obvious time when people expect visual and auditory displays to change. By calling to mind candy cane, evergreen boughs and the like, holiday scent programs can be congruent with these consumer expectations. Holiday scenting represents an opportunity to generate some excitement and variability in the store.

Likewise, furniture stores are wise to try to eliminate malodors from paint, vinyl, foam and other fresh-out-of-the-factory materials. These smells can be distracting and unpleasant for consumers. In some cases, specific fragrance formulations can be used to neutralize problem malodors while simultaneously providing a pleasant scent effect. Stores that sell used furniture, in particular, might need to deal with malodors related to cigarette smoke, mold and mildew, and more.

In the end, scent is arguably a more primal—and powerful—faculty than many of us fully appreciate. While the physiology of scent has been well understood for decades, there is still something a bit mysterious about its influence on behavior and cognition. For example, research shows that the mere presence of ambient scent in a store can cause visitors to feel better served by associates. One top retailer in Europe diffused an ambient scent in its checkout areas and found that this contributed to a sense of time-compression among shoppers in the space. Another study showed people stayed longer, spent more money and felt more satisfied when in a scented store as compared to an unscented one.

Scientists have recorded all kinds of other ways in which the presence of a pleasant ambient scent can cause people to engage in largely unconscious behavior, including being more honest at the cash register. Exactly why scent brings out our “better angels” in this way is still unclear, but we do know that scent is processed in the same part of the brain that handles our emotions, memory and creativity.  Researchers now believe humans can distinguish more than 10,000 different aromas. That means leaving the scent impressions in your store to random chance is a risky strategy. Furniture retailers invest lots of money in lighting, décor, sound systems, flooring, product displays and more in a bid to create pleasing, multisensory selling environments. Why neglect the nose, which is, after all, one of shoppers’ primary tools for exploring their world?

About Roger Bensinger: Roger Bensinger is Executive Vice President of Prolitec Inc., whose AirQ LEED enabling service is a leading provider of ambient scenting services to retailers and other businesses, with more than 60,000 installations across the globe. For more information about scenting solutions in retail stores contact rbensinger@airq.com.

Furniture World is the oldest, continuously published trade publication in the United States. It is published for the benefit of furniture retail executives. Print circulation of 20,000 is directed primarily to furniture retailers in the US and Canada.  In 1970, the magazine established and endowed the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library (www.furniturelibrary.com) in High Point, NC, now a public foundation containing more than 5,000 books on furniture and design dating from 1620. For more information contact editor@furninfo.com.