Harnessing The Power of Aroma: How Scent Marketing Works for Retailers

Perfume bottle

Scent marketing is a type of sensory marketing targeting a shopper’s sense of smell. It involves diffusing strategically chosen scents at different locations in your store. The goal is to create a memorable, pleasant shopping experience and increase sales. 

Ambient scents have been used throughout history in nearly every ancient society. Clocks in ancient Japan burned a different incense every 15 minutes. Pharaohs adorned themselves with lavish fragrances to alert people of their arrival. Ancient Roman pets were blessed with fragrant oils.

Scent is our oldest and most evolved sense. And today it’s used as a marketing tool by retailers to attract, delight, and convert in-store shoppers. 

Research has shown that scent marketing can raise retail store sales by 11% and increase customer satisfaction scores by 20%.

Want in on the action? This article will look at the benefits of scent marketing for retailers, the best examples around, and how you can employ scent marketing in your store today.

What is scent marketing?

Retail spaces have plenty to consider when creating the right atmosphere to suit the products they’re selling. Location, decor, employee uniforms, lighting, art, temperature, music, and, increasingly, smell all combine to create an immersive brand experience. Think of some of the most popular retail locations and you’ll understand what I mean.

Often an afterthought, scent marketing involves using carefully chosen fragrances at different customer touchpoints. The right scent featured in your store builds a powerful, long-lasting association with it and communicates your brand identity. Some 75% of emotions generated every day are due to smell, which makes scent marketing critical in driving sales in-store.

Studies show that visual recall of images sinks to about 50% after only three months. Yet, humans can recall smells with 65% accuracy after an entire year.

Purposeful scents allow stores to create emotional connections with customers, plus offer the following benefits: 

  • Link memory and emotion. Memorable scents cause customers to remember your store.
  • Communicates value and drives sales. Customers spend more in a store that smells good. 
  • Builds brand loyalty and image. People can relate scent to memory.

Depending on the size of your store and scenting method, deploying a scent can cost between $100 and $1,000. Businesses with a smaller budget can easily start with a diffuser and essential oil and see higher customer satisfaction and more sales. 

The science of scent

Oflaction, or our sense of smell, is our oldest, most-evolved sense. It’s processed by the limbic system, which is on the same side of the brain where emotions and memories are kept. 

An adult can distinguish 10,000 different odors, and our bodies generate scent neurons every few weeks to ensure they’re in good working order. Unlike our other senses, scent travels immediately through various parts of your brain instead of being processed centrally first.

The physiology of how we process scent is useful to know, because it holds the answers to the psychology of smell, which is where things get really interesting. Here’s a quick overview from a 2013 TED Talk. 

Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory.

When you take a deep whiff of your morning coffee, the smell of those fresh-roasted beans darts into parts of the brain responsible for emotional and memory processing. 

As explained in the video above, our other senses don’t work in the same way. That’s why smell can trigger a happy memory more quickly than touching the hot coffee mug or tasting that first sip.

Scientists suggest that there are a number of reasons that our bodies treat scent differently than other senses. From hunting and gathering food to finding healthy mates, linking smells with memories that stir up desire, happiness, or even fear is biologically useful for humans.

Humans have one other thing to consider when scent is at play: context is key. Experiments have shown that while scents are important to our animal brains, our highly visual nature can mingle with and directly influence our reaction to scents. Audio cues that align with scents matter, too.

To understand how important context is to scent marketing, researchers suggest that labeling a scent good or bad is as important as the scent itself. In one experiment, subjects were asked to inhale the scent of cheese. 

Those who were told it was cheese were delighted with the scent. But when researchers told other participants that the container was filled with vomit (even though it was the same cheese), people reacted with disgust. Psychologist Johan Lundstrom drew the conclusion that “you can go from extremely positive to extremely negative just by changing the label.”

Types of scent marketing strategies

Aroma billboards

Aroma billboards are the most bold type of scent marketing. The name comes from the fact that a distinct scent can trigger your olfactory system, just like a billboard to the optical system. 

People are 100 times more likely to remember something they smell over something they hear, see, or touch.

Ever walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch in your local mall, then another one at a different mall, and notice it smells exactly the same? Abercombie & Fitch has a distinct, strong scent associated with it that it saturates the store with to attract passersby.

Even if you’ve never been in an Abercrombie & Fitch store before, you probably know the tangy, fresh scent of its proprietary cologne, Fierce. That’s the result of an aroma billboard. 

Many retailers use bold scents to permeate the air around their location, which draws people in from outside. A boutique store that smells like rosemary, a bakery using the scent of recently baked goods, a coffee shop that smells like lightly caramelized nutty beans. These are all ways to use bold smells that make a statement to get more people in the door who shop longer and buy more. 

Ambient scenting

As modern in-store experiences become more competitive, retailers are searching for new ways to create distinct and irreplaceable experiences. Studies show that some are turning to ambient scent, which is the scent present throughout a retail or service environment. 

These scents aren’t signature smells. You can use fragrances to enhance the shopper’s experience for different reasons, like a lavender scent for relaxation or floral scents for lingering around a store.

Two studies by Rutgers University set out to see if ambient scent could improve memory for branded products. The results were the same. Ambient scent improves recall and recognition of familiar and unfamiliar brands.

Moreover, shoppers perceive scented areas as high end and luxurious. An older but relevant study by Nike showed that customers were 84% more likely to buy shoes in a scented environment versus a non-scented environment. They were also willing to pay 10% to 20% more in scented environments for products they wanted. 

Ambient scenting is the easiest scent marketing to deploy for small businesses. It’s more discreet than an aroma billboard and doesn’t need to be brand specific. Some retailers will use a single fragrance, while others will place different scents in specific departments. 

Common ambient scents include:

  • Florals, to encourage buyers to linger in your store
  • Leather, to evoke a feeling of luxury and opulence
  • Fresh linen, to give a crisp, clean feel
  • Lavender for relaxation
  • Vanilla, to elevate the mood

Be sure to control ambient scents with a tool like a diffuser. This will allow you to adjust levels and ensure the scent is present but not so strong that it deters shoppers. 

Thematic scenting

Thematic scents are the pinnacle of scent marketing. They’re used to complement an exhibit’s mood or decor. The idea is that your scent should match the nature of the environment, like the smell of popcorn at a movie theatre. 

Shoppers tend to spend more time in scented locations. One study from Samsung revealed that shoppers underestimated shopping time by 26% and visited three times more products when exposed to themed fragrances versus non-themed ones.

Choose a thematic scent that complements a product in a specific area of your store. For example, Bloomingdale’s uses a coconut scent in its swimwear department and a baby powder scent in infant clothing. 

Context is critical with thematic scents. Psychologists suggest that written labels and visual communication and auditory cues can affect scent marketing. If your scent doesn’t match the product or environment, it can repel shoppers rather than attract them. 

Signature smells

Signature smells involve creating a unique scent for your company’s brand. These branded scents convey a “feel” to customers and are often used as an aroma billboard or ambient scent in stores. It’s expensive and time consuming, so it may not be the right fit for small businesses. 

For retailers who can afford it, signature scents focus on combining fragrance notes that evoke a particular emotion and feeling associated with their brand. Businesses looking for signature scents work with strategists or fragrance companies to develop one. You could also create one on your own using a combination of fragrances. The important thing is to make sure the scent reflects your brand, store, and products, so you stand out to shoppers. 

Why retailers use scent marketing

This wealth of science demonstrates why retailers are investing in scent marketing. Human physiology and psychology place great importance on the sense and link it quickly and deeply to positive memories, so we can repeat those experiences—or negative memories, to help us avoid them.

Couple these biological processes with our other senses that add context, and retailers have a recipe to develop that positive brand experience mentioned earlier.

Fortunately for retailers, the science behind scent marketing isn’t just academic—major retailers like Nike found that scent marketing in retail stores “increased intent to purchase by 80%.” In another real-world scent marketing experiment, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee at a gas station increased coffee sales by 300%.

Scents have also been shown to persuade customers to stay in retail spaces longer and browse more, improve their sense of quality, and create a warm feeling of familiarity.

Scent marketing examples

The science seems to be backed up with real-world examples of retailers improving conversion rates and consumers traveling through the sales funnel. Sound like a potential antidote for your flagging foot traffic? Let’s review some examples of retailers doing scent marketing well and learn from the best.

Cinnabon

This specialty food chain strategically selects locations for its stores where scents get trapped, so that the smell of its fresh cinnamon rolls can linger.

Cinnabon cinnamon roll

Coming off the subway, you expect to encounter a lot of smells, but not usually one as pleasing as a fresh cinnamon bun. It’s a delight to stop at a station where a franchise is set up, and since most of the other lingering smells in the underground are off-putting, Cinnabon shops are especially enticing. 

And true to the science, the Cinnabon smell conjures up memories of that bakery right across the street from my childhood schoolyard. Needless to say, I don’t resist purchasing from Cinnabon all that often when I happen across one.

Singapore Airlines

You don’t need to sell food to excel at scent marketing. Singapore Airlines is a pioneer in the practice. The stale air of a pressurized airline cabin isn’t the best-smelling space, as every weary traveler knows. Singapore Airlines recognized this over 30 years ago and was one of the first to develop a custom scent to spray into its hot towels. The floral and citrus fragrance was so popular that the airline gave it a name: Stefan Floridian Waters.

Singapore Airlines flight attendant
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In addition to improving the smell of the stale air, Singapore Airlines and other airlines aim to use that calming scent to help reduce anxiety and improve customer experience in flight.

Muji

Muji takes a more transparent approach to its scent marketing strategy. The stores, which have origins in Japan while boasting locations in more than a dozen countries, sell a carefully curated mix of textiles, household goods, stationery, and more.

Muji diffuser
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While the chain has opted for a pleasant background scent strategy, it doesn’t hide diffusers in air ducts like many shops do. Instead, aroma diffusers visibly operate in stores and are sold in the shops (along with an assortment of essential oil scents).

Starbucks

Dark greens and wooden decor, chalkboard menus, soft music, and the scent of fresh coffee permeates each location and its surroundings. Starbucks sells food too, but you don’t smell it—that’s by design.

Starbucks store
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Starbucks, the coffee brand that did $7.5 billion in revenue in Q2 2021, has been long known for its scent marketing tactics. It’s reported that Starbucks adds the scent of coffee to its HVAC systems. 

Cineplex

Consider the entertainment vibe mixed with the smell of movie-theatre popcorn (which never tastes the same at home) in every corner of the building. It doesn’t matter that it also sells pizza, nachos, and other foods. Cineplex’s scent brand is fresh popcorn. Movie attendees will see and hear it being made, too, which adds context to the smell.

Cineplex cinemas
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The combination of scents, sounds, and cues spread throughout its locations, encouraging moviegoers to head to the snack bar and get some popcorn. 

Lowe’s

Walk into a brightly lit Lowe’s store and you’re hit with the scent of freshly cut wood.

Lowe's store associate helping a customer
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You may never see a single two-by-four cut in-store, but that smell is somehow always there. It’s meant to inspire us to renovate our homes and dive into DIY.

Bloomingdale’s

Another famous scent-marketing example comes from upscale retail store Bloomingdale’s.

Bloomingdale's store
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The fashion-forward brand is known to use thematic scents in different departments around its stores, targeting shoppers buying specific items. For example, the scent of coconut in swimwear, lilac in lingerie, and “powdery” scents in infantwear. 

Bloomingdale’s scents are subtle, unique, and relevant to the brand. It’s almost unnoticeable when you enter a space. Yet you remember the good time you had while you were there. 

How to employ scent marketing

Lean on scent research

Your shop may not have the resources of Nike or Singapore Airlines to craft custom scents with industry behemoth ScentAir, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the research and development that the big guys funded. 

Read up on studies that reveal cues on how scents can help to attract the right demographic for your products and services. Some interesting takeaways from ScentAir research include:

  • Well-received ambient scents can positively influence purchase behavior if the scent seems to match the products in the store.
  • The opposite is true if the scent doesn’t seem to match the context of the shop; consumers may turn away from the retail space (so pick a scent that makes sense for your brand).
  • Gender-designed scents seem to matter as well. A “feminine” scent in a women’s clothing store helps create positive purchase intent.
  • Once again, the reverse is true if the scent doesn’t seem to match the gender of the SKUs. The same study acknowledges that this is why department stores often incorporate different scents in various areas of the stores, depending on the product focus.
  • Keep the season in mind when creating scentscapes. In December, peppering stores with scents that remind consumers of Christmas while playing Christmas music produces positive consumer outcomes. There are a few things at play here, including the right context and making use of multiple human senses at once, to reinforce the brand.

Decide on the store experience

It’s clear that a pleasant smell makes people feel better. No surprises at this point. Enjoyable scents make us shop longer and spend more. While less pleasant ones deter us from entering a store.

To decide which scents to deploy, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What emotion do you want to trigger in customers? The scent you choose should dictate how customers feel in your store. Relaxed? Opt for a floral scent. Opulent and luxurious? A leather scent may be more fitting. 
  • What best describes your products and shoppers? If you’re selling men’s underwear, a floral scent may not be the best way to go. Look at what makes sense to your products and shoppers. 

The goal is to match your customers’ vibe with your scents. For example, if you’re selling yoga clothing to shoppers who enjoy peace and serenity, you’ll want a scent like patchouli or sandalwood around the store.

Opt for ambiance

Our brains process scents subconsciously first, so low-key scents are actually high impact. After you’ve chosen a scent, think of its placement in your retail space as a background element. A subtle scent will reduce customer friction, improve their perception of quality, and align nicely with how human brains process smells.

Abercrombie & Fitch fragrance
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Some retailers, like Abercrombie & Fitch and LUSH, go against the grain of this best practice. Both retailers feature powerful (overpowering, to some) scents in their stores. 

These brands are employing a strategy called “billboard scents,” because the distinctive smells they’ve chosen to associate with their brand are as in your face as a billboard. They’ve done so deliberately because their market research reveals that their target demographics are largely in tune to those scents, but the strategy also has challenges.

Scents are highly subjective, and deliberately inundating customers with a scent they may dislike, or have an allergic reaction to, can turn them away from your shop or toe the line of nuisance/pollution and put a company at risk of facing legal issues.

This is why only a handful of companies use the billboard scent strategy. If you’re a newbie retailer, it’s one you should avoid. 

Choose points of diffusion

Consider what type of scent marketing you’d like to deploy. If you want to attract customers from the street, opt for an aroma billboard. Does your store have different themes? Try thematic scenting in specific areas that reflect your bestselling products. 

Say you just want your store to smell nice—a simple fragrant oil with a diffuser can work wonders. You don’t need to get into complicated recipes and diffusion methods. 

Start with one or two diffusers in your store, depending on its size. Try placing one as a part of your decor if it matches your aesthetic, or keep it hidden behind your register or near the door. Professor Spagenberg, of Washington State University’s scent research department, advises: “Scent should stay in the background—pleasant, but not distracting.”

Start using the power of scent in your store

There’s enough evidence that scents can help positively influence consumer behavior in retail spaces, and there are enough low-cost/low-risk solutions that there’s no reason not to start experimenting with scent marketing. Not sure what scent you want to try? Ask your customers! Get a few scent strips and ask visitors to your shop to give you their opinions.

Don’t have the funds for a ScentAir consultation? Well-placed items like diffusers and oils are cheap-and-cheerful alternatives.

The best thing about starting small is that it’s easy to change course and try another scent if you get negative feedback about your first try.

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