How Retailers Manipulate Sight, Smell, and Sound to Trigger Purchase Behavior in Consumers

Abercrombie and Fitch | Shopify Retail

When it comes to creating a high-converting physical retail store or pop-up shop, there's a lot that small businesses can learn from the big-name retail brands. Not only is every aspect of the consumer experience mapped out and created with a great deal of thought and attention, much of it is rigorously researched, tested, and optimized. 

Understandably, as a local boutique you can't just cough up the money to hire a multi-disciplinary team of sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and other consultants to help you create an unforgettable branded experience that maximizes sales. But, that's not to say that you can't take a few pages from their book and put their research to work in your own retail store.

In this post, I'll be covering the science behind how popular teen brand Abercrombie and Fitch intentionally designs its retail stores from a multi-sensory point-of-view with one goal in mind: to get consumers to buy their products. 

By the end of it, you'll have a good idea of how you can take what you learned about sight, smell, and sound and put it use for your own brand when you're putting together your visual merchandising strategy, window displays, store layout, or even signage.

Here we go.

The Science Behind "Scent Marketing"

As consumers, we hardly think twice about what a store smells like or the way it makes us feel, think or do. Typically, it's intentionally so subtle that it triggers a reaction without being overbearing. 

Research by Nobel Peace Prize winners Richard Axel and Linda Buck reveal that our sense of smell is widely considered by scholars to be our "most emotional" sense. The reason being that rather than analyze the information we receive from a particular scent, we immediately get a feeling when we smell something. A fun fact you can quote to others is that human beings can remember about 10,000 distinct odours that can trigger important memories that can take us all the way back to our childhood.

Here's how researchers break down our olfactory system:

Scent marketing | Shopify Retail

Coming back to using the science of smell to influence behaviour, in one study conducted by consumer psychologist and academic Eric Spangenberg, him and his colleagues found that in a local clothing store, when "feminine scents" like vanilla were used, sales of women's clothes doubled. They found a similar result with men's clothing when scents like "rose maroc" were used.

Spangenberg added, "Men don't like to stick around when it smells feminine, and women don't linger in a store if it smells masculine."

Though there's different ways scent is incorporated into retailer's marketing efforts, the kind I'm referring to are the ambient scents in a retail environment, which have also been studied and proved to affect people's purchasing habits and determining whether they will return to a store or not. There are actually entire consultancy firms, like ScentAir, who specialize in nothing other than helping brands from a number of industries leverage scent marketing to their advantage.

So how does a brand like Abercrombie & Fitch take advantage of this? 

Coincidentally, it has its own line of men's fragrances called "Fierce" which is sprayed in-stores in healthy doses to give off what the company describes as a "lifestyle...packed with confidence and a bold, masculine attitude." 

Now, A&F knows who it wants in its stores and wants to produce an image of a teenager who is "classic, good-looking and cool." By associating its fragrance with its stores it creates a perpetual self-fulfilling prophesy for its male clientele who by wanting to smell like A&F will be like the models and sales staff in the store. The company describes fragrances for men like so, "clean scent of fresh citrus will grab her attention and warm musk will keep her interested." 

Abercrombie and Fitch cologne | Shopify Retail

The Science Behind Marketing Beautiful People  

Though A&F has come under a lot of heat for its hiring practices and usage of suggestive images in its ads, there's more at work behind the scenes to explain the company's preference for chiselled abs which I'll tackle here. 

Despite the prevalence of ideals like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," scientists have found that people find symmetry and averageness of features attractive in faces and that babies presented with pictures of different faces will gaze longest at those consistently rated as most attractive by panels of adults. 

But how does this help A&F increase sales?

Abercrombie and Fitch ad campaign | Shopify Retail

The answer lies in what psychologists refers to as the "halo effect," and psychologist Robert Cialdini explains it simply in his book Influence when he writes, "We automatically assign to good-looking individuals such favorable traits as talent, kindness, and intelligence." Couple that with the fact that we tend to comply more with those we like (and we like beautiful people) and the fact that we associate people with the products they sell, and it becomes apparent all of a sudden why A&F makes it such a point to have those models on display everywhere they possibly can. 

But we tend to dismiss the effect of the beautiful people in the ads or those selling to us on our purchase decisions, as noted by Cialdini who writes, "In one study, men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model. Yet when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments." 

Cadillac ad campaign | Shopify Retail

The other neurological effect at play is the existence of something called mirror neurons in our brains.  Our mirror neurons trigger the same responses and sensations when looking at something as if we're actually doing that thing ourselves. For example, the diagram below shows how the monkey exhibits the same brain activity when doing something as when watching the women do the exact same action.

Mirror neurons monkey experiment | Shopify Retail

Studies looking at the effect of porn on human brains have found that even when looking at still pictures of naked people, our mirror neurons are triggered into action and the brain pretends as if it were actually having sex and not just looking at pictures in a science lab. 

So what happens when you're in a A&F store and are constantly looking at stimuli that's attractive to look at and making you aroused without you knowing it? Chances are A&F has found that pleasurable feeling they induce in customers makes them want to purchase the products they see on the models. And truthfully, it's not just A&F, it's all of advertising since, well the beginning of advertising. 

What's Up With the Loud Club Music? 

As a consumer, we don't typically think twice about the background music we hear when we walk into a retail store or into a restaurant for that matter. Typically, we'll sing along if it's a song we know, a top 40 hit, or just not care if we don't know it at all. But behind the scenes of your mind, music is working its magic and being used to slow you down, speed you up, and get you to spend more money. 

Music is now known to help us self-regulate our emotions, affect our moods and for its ability to effect us physically by increasing or reducing our heart rate and even being able to increase physiological arousal. 

One study looking at the effect of music tempo on consumer behaviour in a restaurant found that when restaurants play slow music, customers spend a significantly more time in the restaurant than if they place fast music. Interestingly enough, they found customers also spent more in the restaurant when slower music was playing in the background as well. 

Another interesting study looking at the effect of music on wine purchases in a UK store found that on days the researchers played stereotypically French music, sales of French wines far outsold German wines and days they played German music, sales of German wine far surpassed the French wine. 

But then why does A&F play loud club music throughout its store? According to a NY Times article, retailers and restaurant owners believe that younger people can withstand loud music longer, while older ones may run from it, enabling establishments to maintain a more youthful clientele and a "fresher" image. 

In a Psychology Today article, Emily Anthes writes "Shoppers make more impulsive purchases when they're overstimulated. Loud volume leads to sensory overload, which weakens self-control."

She also quotes Kathleen Vohs, an associate professor at the University of Minnisota, who said, "Overload makes people move into a less deliberate mode of decision making. People might be more likely to be lured by brand names, fooled by discounts on items that they might not really want, and susceptible to other influences."

Putting the two together, a few things become apparent. One that A&F doesn't want its target market shopping with its parents who'll happily wait outside for them to finish shopping and avoid the loud music (or put on a head torch and keep at it) and secondly it wants to trigger impulsive purchase behaviour by creating an environment that overstimulates the brain.

To get a taste of A&F's playlist, check out this video: 

Final Thoughts

As a retailer, by now, you're thinking this is all fine and dandy, but I'm not A&F, how do I make use of all this scientific research? To help you with this question, here's a list of key questions to ask yourself:

  • What does your store currently smell like? Is there a particular "branded scent" you want to go for? If so, what emotions and memories do you want to evoke? 
  • Does your product or marketing imagery portray an ideal your target customers want to aspire to? If not, how can you change them to reflect your brand's ideals? 
  • What kind of music do you currently play in store? Are you targeting a more youthful or mature customer segment and how does that reflect in your playlist? 

Hopefully, by answering those questions, you'll have enough insights to get started. If there are other fascinating retail-specific consumer research you found particularly interesting or helpful, be sure to let us know in the comments below.