The Science of Smell: How Retailers Can Use Scent Marketing to Influence Shoppers

Scent Marketing | Shopify Retail blog

My introduction to scent marketing started in the playground of the two-story red brick school house I attended, which sat right across the street from the local bakery.

Each day, the bakery cleverly pointed its oven fans toward our playground. At recess, my classmates and I could stand at the edge of the school yard and smell the sugary donuts and pastries — then we'd beg our parents to pick them up at the end of the day. That delicious scent wafting across the street was better than any sandwich board, flyer, or billboard, and that effectiveness is the reason that scent marketing has become a billion-dollar business that spans industries.

What is Scent Marketing?

Retail spaces have plenty to consider when creating the right atmosphere to suit the goods and services they’re selling. Location, décor, 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.

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

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 they also sell pizza, nachos, and other foods. Their scent brand is fresh popcorn. Movie attendees will see and hear it being made, too, which adds context to the smell.

Lowe's | Shopify Retail blog

Lowe's: Walk into one of their brightly lit stores and you’re hit with the scent of freshly cut wood. You may never see a single 2x4 cut in store, but that smell is somehow always there. It's meant inspire us to renovate our homes and dive into DIY.

The combination of visual, tactile, and intangible elements in a physical retail space is so important because these factors can actually influence shopper behavior, including purchase intent. Why, and how does it work?

Scent Marketing: The Science

Our brains are keenly tuned into scent. An adult can distinguish 10,000 different smells 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.

This short TED-Ed video explains how smell works from a physiological perspective.

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.

You’ve probably heard that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. Well, it turns out that’s actually true. When you take a deep whiff of your morning coffee, the smell of those fresh-roasted beans darts into areas 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 postulate 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, which we’ll discuss below.

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.”

Why Retailers Are Using Scent Marketing

Nike, scent marketing | Shopify Retail blog

This wealth of science demonstrates why retailers are investing in scent marketing. Human physiology and psychology place great importance on the sense and links 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.

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.

Scent Marketing Done Right


Cinnabon scent marketing | Shopify Retail blogThis specialty food chain strategically selects locations for their stores where scents get trapped so that the smell of their fresh cinnamon rolls can linger.

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, the 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 their hot towels. The floral and citrus fragrance was so popular that the airline gave it a name: Stefan Floridian Waters.

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


Muji scent diffuser | Shopify Retail blog

Photo Credit: Muji

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

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

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.

The Monell Center also offers deep research on human senses for retailers who'd like to do further reading on the topic.

Opt for Ambience

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 scent | Shopify Retail blog

Photo Credit: Abercrombie & Fitch

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. Professor Spagenberg of Washing State University’s scent research advises: “Scent should stay in the background — pleasant, but not distracting.”

How to Start Scent Marketing Now

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 paper samples and ask visitors to your shop to give you their opinions.

Don’t have the funds for a ScentAir machine? Well-placed diffusers, oils, etc. are the cheap-and-cheerful alternative.

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.

Have you tried a scent for your retail space? What did you choose and why?