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Are You Tapping Into Shoppers' Five Senses?


Product packaging and advertisements can only get you so far. Modern marketers know that every detail of the store experience — from the music consumers hear to the scents they inhale — holds a subtle sway over their opinion of the brand and their purchasing decisions. Take a myopic view of the power of visuals and you’re leaving four other senses up for grabs.

Although researchers have only just begun to fully explore the deep, powerful impact that experiential retail has over consumers, the data so far is persuasive:

The Touch of a Store

Satiny blouses and velvet robes might evoke luxury if consumers reach out and touch them on the rack, but how the physical store environment feels can also influence perceptions and purchasing decisions. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have shown that standing on carpeting is more comfortable for consumers, and it also influences how they perceive products that are nearby and at a distance.

If consumers do reach out and touch something, the odds of them following through on a purchase skyrocket. A study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making found that people become emotionally attached to an object within 30 seconds of holding it in their hands. And the longer people hold the item, the higher they are to value it, the study showed.

Smart retailers are putting that scientific insight to good use. At b8ta, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based retailer of connected devices, absolutely nothing is encased in packaging. Instead, customers are encouraged to handle and try out everything from smart lightbulbs to foldable bicycles. For these early adopters, who often don’t have the opportunity to try before they buy, the added benefit of touching and feeling a well-designed product could make all the difference in the world.

The Sight of a Display

Sleek, modern displays and neatly arranged products may make a neat-nick manager rejoice, but consumers seem to favor a bit of clutter. The most famous example of this is Walmart, which underwent a makeover in 2011, trimming the amount of merchandise it fit into stores by nearly 10 percent. The aisles looked more orderly — but the consumer response fell flat. So, Walmart reverted back to the tact many retailers take: piling merchandise high to the ceiling, filling lanes near the checkout with tack-ons, and filling endcaps to near-bursting.

Science backs up the more-is-more mentality, when it comes to experiential retailing. As Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist and author of "Why We Buy," explained to Time: "Historically, the more a store is packed, the more people think of it as value — just as when you walk into a store and there are fewer things on the floor, you tend to think they’re expensive."

The Scent of a Brand

A study from the Journal of Business Research found that scent is heavily tied to memory, and evoking a particular memory with the right fragrance can even influence consumer behavior.

A slight whiff of coconut pumped through the store might encourage shoppers to pick up suntan lotion or beach chairs; the subtle scent of leather might nudge them to browse the boots. This is true even when consumers can’t identify the scent.

Recently, some retailers have even gone so far as to trademark the distinct scents of their stores, arguing that it’s a critical part of their brand identity. Verizon Wireless secured a trademark for a “flowery musk” that’s pumped into its marquee stores. United Airlines filed a trademark application for its "Landing" fragrance, a mix of orange peel, sandalwood, cedar and leather. And for New York Fashion Week in 2013, three designers hired an olfactory consultant to pump out signature scents onto the runway while models walked.

Not sold yet? Consider the story of a home improvement chain in Germany. When the store started wafting the scent of fresh-cut grass across the retail floor, consumers began rating salespeople as more knowledgeable. And science backs up that anecdote: A study from the University of Paderborn found that when retailers used certain scents, consumers reported a higher perception of quality.  

The Sound of a Sale

Mood and music are inextricably intertwined, and playing the right music in a retail environment can make a big difference. A University of Texas survey showed that 76 percent of retail managers found that customers bought more as a result of the store’s background music, and 82 percent saw an uptick in customers’ moods.

But it’s not just the overall experience that’s made more pleasant by music. Research has shown that savvy retailers can actually sway consumer behavior by shifting the tempo and volume. One study showed that people spent significantly less time in a supermarket when the music was loud, though they didn’t consciously report being deterred by the higher volume.

On the tempo front, slow music has been shown to influence consumers to spend more on impulse purchases, according to the American Psychological Association.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all playlist for every outlet. There’s a reason a teen clothing store might play pop, while a high-end bookseller leans toward classical. Music that doesn’t align with the brand can feel incongruous and even be off-putting to consumers. And if you put an employee in charge of the speakers for a shift, you risk alienating customers — or presenting a sound that’s more reflective of that employee than of the overall brand.

The Taste of Your Customers

Free samples are an easy, low-cost way to introduce consumers to products they might not regularly buy. They’re also a powerful tool to get them to spend more overall. A study in the British Food Journal showed that shoppers spend more after receiving a free sample — as much as 2,000 percent more! —and they spend far beyond that product category. (Psychologists call this the reciprocity effect.)

The power of complementary bites needn’t be limited to food merchants, either. Retailers ranging from clothes to cars to electronics might find that offering hot coffee and tea, for instance, subconsciously increases consumer affinity for the brand.

University of Toronto researchers found that when people are sipping a warm drink, it actually makes them feel more generous and connected. And smart marketers know that the cost of that coffee could be far outweighed by the positive impact of nurturing that customer connection.

Shoppers don’t experience a store with only one sense engaged. Shopping is an intimate, immersive experience, with everything from sounds and scents to visual displays and tempting samples playing on the consumer’s senses.

Applying the right strategy to experiential retailing can not only influence how consumers behave in the store, but how they feel about a brand long after they’ve returned home.

Helping Convenience Stores Come to Their Senses

Given the data that exists on how playing to customer senses can influence in store behavior, below are a few important reminders that convenience store owners can easily implement to improve engagement with their customers:

Feeling is believing: Get a good handle on your customers by encouraging them to try out your products in the store.

Offer a sight for sore eyes: Align items vertically on shelves to show value of inventory.

Set the mood with music: Don’t blast out your customers. Play music that aligns with your brand, and try different tempos like slower music to influence impulse purchases.

Use scents to encourage specific purchases. A caramel- or vanilla-scented candle might just be the recipe needed to boost coffee and doughnut sales.

Always make them hungry for more: Try offering free samples of food items and you’re likely to move more of them.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News

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