Imagine this. You are walking along the main aisle of a shopping center, blindfolded. It is Christmas and it is about time you bought the perfect presents for whoever you are going to meet later at dinner. In the air, several fragrances are floating, yet from somewhere in your nearest vicinity, a specific smell of gingerbread, mulled wine and cinnamon are luring you – inevitably, you choose to follow its path, unable to rely on visual perception.

Does this ring a bell? The blindfold isn’t even mandatory – when there is such a variety of stores to choose from, the tendency is to choose the one that corresponds most to what we plan on buying, be it a merely olfactory, often inexplicable resemblance.

In fact, most retailers are aware of the occurrence of such a phenomenon (which, mind you, has even been scientifically proved): scents that are congruent with the available products result in more time spent in a store and, consequently, more money.

This is due to the uniqueness of the olfactory sense, deemed to be the most instinctual and strongest out of the five inborn senses; as it is the most capable to induce an emotional reaction, it is no wonder that our consumer habits can be very much influenced by the seller’s thoughtful manipulation. Perhaps the word manipulation is a bit too far-fetched – there is nothing wrong in creating the perfect ambient stimuli for your potential buyers – and, let’s face it: whatever we are looking for, our shopping experience is notably drabber in the absence of any pleasant scent.

There are three coordinates the olfactory sense is most relevant in: memory, attention and mood – each can be triggered quite easily and, more often than not, unintentionally or without out conscious consent. To exemplify, think of walking into a pastry store and suddenly sensing a delicious smell of baked cookies, perhaps with a hint of vanilla, which peculiarly reminds you of grandma’s own culinary masterpieces.

Chances are your memory has already tricked you into buying a few of them, only to discover that the taste is not the same, regardless of the smell. Another relevant use of fragrance is when the ambient of a retail shop has a scent similar to the one of the office you work in (coffee, mahogany, freshly-scrubbed floors, printed paper etc.) – it is very likely you will become more apperceptive, paying close attention to the products you look at and ruminate more over buying them or not.

When it comes to shopping, the smell can be brought into question either when the product itself is or has a scent (perfume, scented candles, food, soaps and lotions etc.) or as a part of the ambient.

In the former case, it would be abnormal for someone to buy something that doesn’t olfactory appeal or that doesn’t smell as it is supposed to (“Maybe this pie is off”, “Why does this strawberry tart smell like lemon?”), whereas the latter case is an “approach or avoid” one: we cannot tell for sure if a scent is suitable for the given environment or not – most people prefer fresh floral scents or wooden touches when they enter a store – but our judgement prevents us from buying products if the ambient smell is unpleasant, forced, or correlated with lack of quality.

As strange as it may seem, although it is psychologically possible to associate the bad smell with bad quality without any solid grounds, the liaison between smell and quality is not entirely a psychological construct.

Certain substances, fabrics or adhesives used in production processes may indicate cheapness, lack of quality and even potentially harmful products. Would you buy your child a toy from a thrift store reeking of rubber and petroleum?

What about a pair of jeans whose tag says “100% natural cotton”, but whose fabric smells like plastic? Unless you have a thing for taking unnecessary risks, I assume not.

Not only are shopping scents inviting, enjoyable or evocative, but they are also suggestive and, quite often, gender differentiating. For us, the typical consumers, they go unnoticed in most cases, but this use of smell in shopping occurs on a regular basis. But what makes a fragrance feminine, masculine or unisex? Although the classification is not completely accurate, researchers have discovered that certain scents have the tendency to appeal to one gender more than to the other.

Many a time, the women sections in clothing shops have light and floral, or sweet and fruity odors floating around and an olfactory difference is distinguishable when walking towards the men’s sections – they are deemed to prefer stronger scents of wood, musk and spices.

Whether it is ethical for a retailer or a producer to use scent as leverage, that cannot be established with certainty, due to how ambiguous and subjective the analysis of the effect of scents in shopping can be. Is it okay for us to choose brands and products relying on our noses?

I’d say a clear decision-making process should not be influenced solely by our olfactory sense, because there are also other factors to be taken into account, depending on the nature of the product – is its purpose to be seen and admired or eaten, worn, smelled etc.? Nevertheless, you’ll definitely remember a smell that is memorable – for any reasons – to you, and it’s likely it will make you want to visit its store more than once, be it only for your own sensorial self-indulgence.