Over 154 Years of Service to the Furniture Industry
 Furniture World Logo

Multi-Sensory Retailing

Furniture World Magazine


How furniture retailers can and should make an analog connection with shoppers in an increasingly digital world.

Furniture and home furnishings stores hit a rough patch in 2019. Through September, sales were flat year-to-date from 2018 at $85.4 billion. This comes after two strong years when retail sales were up YOY by 2.8 percent in 2017 and 2.5 percent in 2018 ending at $116.6 billion in sales.

While brick-and-mortar furniture and home furnishings retailers wring their hands about the state of affairs in physical retail, they may be overlooking the most powerful competitive weapon at their disposal and one that e-commerce retailers like Wayfair and Joss & Main cannot replicate: their ability to engage shoppers’ human dimension through their five senses.

Positive Emotional Effect

Academic researchers professors Miralem Helmefalk and Bertil Hultén, PhD at Linneaus University in Sweden, shed light on ways for retailers to engage customers in a multi-sensory way. In an article published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services they write, “For retailers, a visually dominant store atmosphere should be designed more in the direction of a multi-sensory atmosphere in offering shoppers more appealing experiences of the retail setting.”

They cite research that demonstrates, “a positive effect of multi-sensory congruent cues on shoppers’ emotions, through valence and purchase behavior, through time spent in the store and purchase.”

In plain English, shoppers engaged through all five senses in the store spend more time there and are more likely to make purchases. These are the two most critical factors in driving retail sales and higher levels of spending.

Leon & Lulu

Unfortunately, too few retailers are effectively using the power of all five senses in retail. To help me explore multi-sensory retail strategies for furniture and home furnishings retailers, I turned to Mary Liz Curtin, co-founder with her husband of the “Shop that POPs!”, Leon & Lulu, an “everything” store in the Detroit suburbs of Clawson, Michigan. It opened in 2006 in the town’s refurbished historic roller skating rink. Heavy into furniture and home furnishings, Leon & Lulu also sells gifts, jewelry, personal care items and fashion items.

Shoppers engaged through all five senses in the store spend more time there and are more likely to purchase.

Then in 2016, the couple expanded by buying the historic movie theater next door, to feature Michigan-made products along with expanded greeting cards, vintage accessories and more furniture. Three Cats Café joined the party later that year. “At our full-service restaurant everything is for sale, so you can buy the sofa where you have a cocktail or the table you are dining at,” Curtin says.

Mary Liz knows more than a thing or two about engaging all five senses in retail. “When somebody comes into your store, you just have to embrace them with everything you can possibly give them, from a warm smile to a good smell to a great sound,” she shares.

Color Stimulates

The psychology behind it is called the 'endowment effect,' which is because people place more value on the things they own, and when they touch a product in the store, it tends to make them feel that sense of ownership.

The visual sense is by far the one that retailers activate most frequently in terms of design, color, style and lighting. But too many furniture retailers fail to exploit the power of color fully, retreating to neutrals and the “sea of beige” upholstered selections so common in furniture stores. “We bring in beige occasionally, but it also tends to sit on the floor for a long time,” Mary Liz says.

When it comes to home decor, color is everything, and Mary Liz uses it to maximum effect. “For us, more is more. Our store is fun, busy and interesting. We tend to show stronger colors and more interesting fabrics than most furniture stores,” she continues.

As for her merchandising philosophy, furniture is shown in groupings based upon themes that tell a cohesive story. And because she sells so much other stuff in the store, not just decorative accessories but fashion too, she stages each grouping as you would find it in the home, with a hat and coat hanging on the coat rack and books positioned on the coffee table.

“We have such a great mixture of things that we sell in the store. We use it all to make the shopper feel comfortable, like she has just come home,” Mary Liz shares.

That Personal Touch

The tactile experience of shopping, to touch, feel and sit, is a tremendous draw for customers. It’s what shoppers can’t do online.

Further, the more people touch products while shopping, the more likely they are to buy and to spend more money when doing it. The psychology behind it is called the “endowment effect,” because people place more value on the things that they own, and when they touch a product in the store, it tends to make them feel that sense of ownership.

In a furniture store, the personal touch is even more important, since buying furniture is a process fraught with tension. “One of the things that is rarely talked about is how nervous customers get when they are buying furniture,” Mary Liz shares. “A man can think nothing of buying a new $50,000 car, but when it comes to buying a $5,000 sofa, he has a meltdown.”

In the store, Mary Liz and her team take the pressure off and help guide customers toward the furniture styles that will work for them. “We ask questions, like whether they have pets or if they eat on their sofas or entertain in the home,” she explains. “We ask them questions they aren’t likely to think about on their own but are critically important in choosing the right furniture.”

And at Leon & Lulu, customers are encouraged to sit down, stretch out and, if so inclined, to take a nap. “We want our customers to feel like they have come home, so we serve red wine that they can enjoy on our furniture. We don’t worry about it. And we often find that a husband will find a comfy sofa or chair and take a snooze while his wife shops,” she quips.

With creating a comfortable space in the store her goal, Mary Liz has banned television from the sales floor to avoid over-stimulation. “We have video in the movie theater where our restaurant is, but that is a tribute to the building. But in the store, we want people talking and interacting, not watching the ball game. It is too distracting,” she says.

“Shopping is a social activity where you have salespeople ready to help you find what you need and the things that will serve you well. The personal experience makes all the difference rather than just looking at page after page of furniture pictures on the internet,” she adds.

Scent Recalls Memories

Smell is the only sense that has a direct line to your brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain involved in motivation, emotion, learning and memory.

“Nothing evokes a memory like smell,” Mary Liz shares. “Customers in a furniture store are looking for that warm feeling of home and to buy things that can help them create that warm feeling in their home. The smell of cookies baking can bring you back to your grandmother’s kitchen.”

For the Leon & Lulu store, Mary Liz had a “scent-story” challenge. Because the store is in the town’s skating rink, people expected the store to smell like it did back in the day, “like feet and sweat,” she quips. “But we have a whole selection of fragrant personal care items, along with candles. And every day we burn a Lampe Berger in the store to make the store smell warm and homey.”

She programs the scents thematically by the seasons, so through Thanksgiving it is pumpkin spice, which will be replaced by Christmas evergreen after. But other scents like vanilla and fresh cotton never go out of season in the Leon & Lulu store.

We have a whole selection of fragrant personal care items, along with candles. And every day we burn a Lampe Berger in the store to make the store smell warm and homey.

Sounds of Selling

Music played in stores can often be a sensory assault when shopping, rather than a pleasure, like the Christmas songs blasted on endless loops everywhere. Abercrombie & Fitch uses loud music as much to attract the customers it wants (young ones) as to turn away those it doesn’t (old ones). Too often, the music played in stores is an afterthought, or maybe given no thought, rather than chosen strategically to keep people in the store longer and make them spend more.

There are some well-researched guidelines for how retailers should program music in the shopping environment. For example, slow music is better than fast. Slow music encourages shoppers to move more slowly through the store and to spend more time picking things up, touching and interacting in the environment.

Fast music tends to make shoppers move faster, so they quickly get what they want and move on. Since higher retail sales are directly correlated to how much time people spend in the store, slower-paced music should be the choice.

It is the same with volume. Loud music, just like fast music, encourages people to move quickly to get out. Soft music creates a comfortable environment, encouraging a shopper to spend more time there.

The choice on the playlist at Leon & Lulu drifts toward jazz and mellow retro sounds. “We don’t play anything that is too strident or too boring,” Mary Liz says, and mentions that a Leon Redbone album was playing as we talked. “For us, jazz is always good.”

For furniture retailers to use sonic branding for the most effect, they need to think beyond random soundtracks chosen by the store manager in the morning and create a symphony of sound that captures the heart and soul of the warm, comfortable experience they want to create in the store.


For us, more is more. Our store is fun, busy and interesting.
We tend to show stronger colors and more interesting fabrics than most furniture stores.


Taste of Something Special

Mary Liz has a distinct advantage in delivering the taste experience to customers, thanks to her Three Cats Café. But she says that even before she opened the restaurant – which is not for the faint of heart, since running a restaurant is a very different business than operating a furniture store – Leon & Lulu would host special events for local groups and charities where caterers brought in taste treats. The day we talked, her staff was setting up for a private birthday party that evening, with her restaurant doing the catering.

“We’ve done all kinds of events in this space, birthday parties, cancer-free parties and many charity events,” she explains. “We have a venue that is already decorated. It is comfortable, and people can sit anywhere. Plus it saves the sponsors a lot of money.”

Not to mention, renting out the store for parties gives Leon & Lulu another revenue stream and introduces the store to people who may not have discovered it yet. And while they are hosting a party, they are also open for business exclusively for the guests. “Even if they don’t buy something at the event, they get to know us and often come back.”

The Analog Connection

In conclusion, Mary Liz says that customers' in-store retail sensory experiences are greater than the sum of the individual parts. “People may not notice the music. They may not notice the scent. But if it’s quiet, they notice. If it smells bad, they notice,” she says. “So it is all about the little things we think about beforehand and put together. Then people notice the whole, but they don’t have a clue about all the little components that go into it.”

When it comes to furniture retail, it’s all about the home, the look of the home, the feel of the home and the experience you want to feel when you come home. And that is the exact experience Mary Liz wants to give her customers.

“You have to think about everything that will make them feel comfortable in the store: like they’ve come home. Then they will want to take a little bit of our home to theirs.”

About Pam Danziger: Pamela N. Danziger is an internationally recognized expert specializing in consumer insights for marketers targeting the affluent consumer segment. She is president of Unity Marketing, a boutique marketing consulting firm she founded in 1992 where she leads with research to provide brands with actionable insights into the minds of their most profitable customers.

She is also a founding partner in Retail Rescue, a firm that provides retailers with advice, mentoring and support in Marketing, Management, Merchandising, Operations, Service and Selling.

A prolific writer, she is the author of eight books including Shops that POP! 7 Steps to Extraordinary Retail Success, written about and for independent retailers. She is a contributor to The Robin Report and Forbes.com. Pam is frequently called on to share new insights with audiences and business leaders all over the world. Contact her at pam@unitymarketingonline.com.