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How does in store scent influence our shopping behavior?

Updated on April 2, 2014

Why would scent matter?

Of all the human senses, scent influences our nervous system and emotions the most (McDonnel, 2002), for scent can create certain moods and affect feelings (Dember and Warm, 1991). Gault, Edward and Drexel (1997) support these findings by concluding that scent influences states of
feeling, pleasure, arousal and mood. Adding to that, odors tend to have a large effect on the arousal levels, which has been determined often over time via electroencephalography scans. Restak (1984) explains these effects by showing that odors are processed in the limbic part of the brains; the center of one's emotions. These findings might be somewhat surprising, since one might expect vision to be the most influential sense. It is evident however, that the effects of scent on our emotions should not be underestimated. In line with the above information, Laird (1932) already showed that scent also is able to influence product judgments. In his study an experiment was constructed in which 250 homemakers
evaluated four identical pairs of stockings, each with a different scent. It was found that the narcissus scented pair was ascribed the highest quality by the participants. In addition to Laird, Cox (1967) found in a follow up study that the addition of an orange scent lead to an even higher ascribed
quality. More recent studies also identify scent as an important marketing instrument; Hirsch (1990) demonstrated the influence of scent by placing two identical Nike sneakers in two separate rooms: one room containing a floral scent and one room a neutral scent. Participants preferred the shoes in the scented room and estimated them to cost more. Doucé & Janssens (2013) went so far as to suggest the use of scent in a shopping environment to "create promising opportunities for retailers" (p. 233).

The above makes it very clear that scent has the potential to play an important role in consumers' emotions and consumer judgments and that it has the ability to have a major impact on one's state of mind, which makes one susceptible for influence. Subsequently, the assumption can be made that scent can indeed play an important role in influencing ones behavior. The existing literature seems quite unambiguous concerning the importance of scent in marketing and consensus appears to exist on the existence of a link between scent and consumer behavior. However, the question for now is whether the scent effects remain in a cluttered store environment where dozens or hundreds of different products are displayed.

A fruitful shopping experience

From an airline with an entirely scented fleet, including towels and stewardesses, to a more common fresh bread scented supermarket, either artificial or natural: all that to bring consumers into a certain state of mind of buying. These are a few of the many examples of the use of scent for marketing purposes. The concept of atmospherics, like scent, influencing consumer behavior is generally accepted in the marketing literature (Turley & Milliman, 2000). However, store managers lately have shown interest in using scents in the retail environment with the idea of creating a competitive advantage which is a relatively new phenomenon. Retailers understand the importance of their store environment and past studies that have explored the added value of scent show that the presence of certain smells might positively enhance this. The first study that focuses solely on the added value of in store scent dates from 1996 (Spangenberg, Crowely & Henderson) and since then many follow up studies have already been conducted.

The purpose of this literature study is to investigate this relatively new field of study on the basis of existing research to what extent the use of in-store scent can influence consumers' shopping behavior. Therefore, the first part of this review aims at providing a global understanding of the effects that scent can have on consumer behavior. Subsequently, the role that scent plays in the shopping environment, compared to other atmospherics, is defined. Thereafter, the link between in store scent and shopping behavior is established on the base of different relevant studies. Ultimately, the extent to which in store scent can contribute to the enhancement of shopping behavior is discussed.

What influence does store environment have on our shopping behavior?

To be able to determine the possible role of scent in shopping behavior, it is important to have a clear understanding of the influence that shopping environment has as such on shopping behavior. A general theoretical starting point for studying the effects of scent on the shopping environment seems to be derived from the environmental psychology, which posits "that the environment is a stimulus containing cues that combine to affect people's internal evaluations, which in turn create approach and/or avoidance responses" (Spangenberg, 1996, p. 68). In this, approach is described as positive behavior towards the environment and avoidance as the negative desire to leave the store or not to browse (Spangenberg, 1996). Another store environment theory, widely used in a lot of scent studies, is the one of
Mehrabian and Russel (1974), which suggests that environmental stimuli influence shopping behavior, because it would create a certain affective experience by consumers. Scent happens to be one of these stimuli, together with color, sound, the presence of other people, disorder etc. and ought to create a certain emotional mood. It is the amount of pleasure and arousal of shoppers , that together combines to the affective experience (Spangenberg, 1996), which are of high importance, because research has shown these factors to be a significant predictor of shopping behavior. Both pleasure and arousal are believed to amongst others positively influence the amount of money and time spent in the store (Sherman, Mathur & Smith, 1997), contribute to unplanned shopping and have a positive effect on approach behavior and satisfaction (Matilla and Wirtz, 2001). These findings show that the shopping environment plays an important role in influencing shopping behavior and evaluations made of a store. The environmental stimuli theory can be used to identify and explain the role of scent in the whole, in particular the factors pleasure and arousal. It is important to that the factor dominance, originally the third factor constituting to affective experience, has been left out of consideration due to its demonstrated low prediction value (Donovan, Rossiter, Marcoolyn & Nesdale, 1994). Therefore, for the purpose of this review, in the
next part there will be focused solely on the two factors, pleasure and arousal.

What is the link between in store scent and our shopping behavior?

After dealing with scent effects on consumer behavior and discussing the influence of store environment on shopping behavior, in this paragraph the link between in store scent and shopping behavior is aimed to be established. The previously discussed matters are integrated to a whole and combined with new, relevant studies. "Different types of odors can make people perceive environments and products in a particular way" (Doucé & Janssens, 2013, p. 221). Plenty of research has been conducted that focuses on the relationship between in store scent and shopping behavior, which started off with Spangenberg, Crowely and Henderson (1996) who were aware of the fact that retailers were spraying scent into their stores to positively enhance the environment, but found this to be remarkable since no scientific proof existed at this time to support this idea. Thus an experiment was constructed to investigate the use of scent in a commercial setting. During 20 weeks a simulated store was sprayed with a different scent every day, either neutral or pleasant. Participants were observed and had to fill in questionnaires. It turned out that the use of a pleasant scent lead participants to pass more time in the shop, give more positive evaluations about the store, a higher purchase intention and participants were willing to visit the store again. Since the aforementioned research a lot of similar studies have been carried out, and a quite a few imply a relation between in store scent and shopping behavior. McDonnell (2002) found that the use of a pleasant scent in an environment in which people are in a queue waiting for service can help decrease the perceived waiting time. Morrin and Ratneshwar (2000) showed that the presence of a pleasant store scent can result in a more positive evaluation of brands. This tends to be the case
especially with rather unknown brands. In a later study the aforementioned researchers discovered that a pleasant scent causes consumers to take more time to pick up brand names of products. Spangenberg, Crowley and Henderson (1996 ) concluded that subjects in a scented group had a higher purchase intention and perceived the time spent in the store to be lower.
The previous findings lead to the assumption that scent is able to positively enhance shopping behavior. Participants having a higher purchase intention , perceiving the queue to be
shorter, e.g.; these are all examples of factors contributing to the earlier discussed affective experience, which in turn is believed to have a positive effect on shopping behavior (Mehrabian and Russel (1974).


Judging from all the foregoing studies, so far one could presume that applying scent in a store environment can definitely positively influences consumers' shopping behavior. However, how reliable are these studies and what do they specifically measure? Even though there is plenty of research showing the added value of in store scent on shopping behavior, it might not be as straightforward as it seems since scent has been found tointeract with a lot of other factors. Michon, Chebat and Turley (2005) found a u-shaped relationship to exist between ambient scent and the density of shoppers. Essentially, a pleasant odor had only effect when the density level was moderate. Chebat and Michon (2003) noted that only a modest level of scent will have the most effect on consumer behavior and that when the odor is too highly concentrated it can have a negative impact, even though the scent is perceived to be pleasant. On the other hand, Spangenbergs study (1996) on the influence of ambient scent on retail environment, indicated that the intensity of the scent did not have any impact on the results. As discussed before, in store scent is one of the many atmospherics influencing shopping behavior( Mehrabian & Russel, 1974). However, little research exists on the combination of the effect of odor and other dimensions on the shopping environment. Mattila and Wirtz (2001) nonetheless investigated scent effects combined with music and concluded their research by stating that when "ambient scent and music are congruent with each other in terms of their arousing qualities, consumers rate the environment significantly more positive, exhibit higher levels of approach and impulse buying behaviors, and experience enhanced satisfaction than when these environmental cues were at odds with each other" (p. 273). This two factor study seems to be scarce, which suggests that in other scent researches the interaction effects of scent with other store atmospherics have not been taken into account, which is therefore a focus of attention for future research. Doucé and Janssens (2013) support this reasoning as they advise that "future research should also investigate the interaction of fragrances with other atmospheric cues because shopping is a holistic experience in which a consumer is exposed to several environmental elements at the same time" (p. 233). The final disputable consideration is the fact that the vast majority of the reviewed studies on in store scent influence was carried out in a simulated retail environment. One may wonder how this endangers the generalizability of these studies. Spangenberg, Crowley and Henderson (1996) thus highly recommend that "future research should take this closer to realism by conducting research in the field and scenting real stores" (p. 77). Concluding this literature review, one could state that to a certain extent in store scent can surely contribute to a positive influence on consumers' shopping behavior. It can however not be seen as a guaranteed success, since a lot of different factors come into play and one should warrant that odor is not employed in the wrong way because this could just negatively affect shopping behavior. Plus, one should be aware of the fact that nearly all the demonstrated effects cover attitudinal effects, which is well-known to be a good predictor of actual behavior but, again, not a guarantee (Mehrabian & Russell, 1974).


Chebat, J.C., & Michon, R. (2003). Impact of Ambient Odors on Mall Shoppers' Emotions, Cognition and Spending: a Test of Competitive Causal Theories. Journal of Business Research,58(5), 576-583.

Cox, D. F. (1967). The Sorting Rule Model of the Consumer Product Evaluation Process. Risk Takingand Information Handling in Consumer Behavior.

Boston, MA: Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 324-369.

Donovan, R., Rossiter, J., Marcoolyn, G. & Nesdale, A. (1994). Store Atmosphere and Purchasing behavior. Journal of Retailing, 70(3), 283–294.

Doucé, L., & Janssens, W. (2013). The Presence of a Pleasant Ambient Scent in a Fashion Store: The Moderating Role of Shopping Motivation and Affect Intensity. Environment and Behavior 45, 215-238

Hirsch, A. R. (1990). Preliminary Results of Olfaction Nike Study. Note dated November distributed by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, Ltd. Chicago, IL.

Laird, D. A. (1932). How the Consumers Estimate Quality by Subconscious Sensory Impressions: With Special Reference to the Role of Smell. Journal of Applied Psychology, June, 241-246.

Mattila, A.S., & Wirtz, J. (2001). Congruency of Scent and Music as a Driver of In-Store Evaluations and Behavior. Journal of Retailing 77(2), 273-289.

McDonnell, J. (2002). Sensorial Marketing for Those Who Can Wait No Longer. In Proceedings of the First International Conference of Sensorial Marketing. Nice, The Academy French Marketing and Columbia University.

Mehrabian, A., & Russell, J.A. (1974). An Approach to Environmental Psychology. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Michon, R., Chebat, J., & Turley, L.W. (2005). Mall Atmospherics: the Interaction Effects of the Mall Environment on Shopping Behavior. Journal of Business Research 58(5). 576-583.

Morrin, M., & Ratneshwar, S. (2000). The Impact of Ambient Scent on Evaluation, Attention, and Memory for Familiar and Unfamiliar Brands. Journal of Business Research 49(2). 157-165.

Restak, R. (1984). The Brain. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Sherman, E., Mathur, E., & Smith, R.B. (1997). Consumer Satisfaction with Health-Care Services: The Influence of Involvement. Psychology and Marketing 14, 261-285.

Spangenberg, E.R., Crowley, A.E., & Henderson, P.W. (1996). Improving the Store Environment: Do Olfactory Cues Affect Evaluations and Behaviors?” Journal of Marketing, 60, 67-80.

Turley, L.W., & Milliman, R. (2000). Atmospheric Effects on Shopping Behavior: A Review of the Experimental Evidence. Journal of Business Research 49, 193-211.

© 2014 JamievanderZiel


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