When it comes to sales improvement, every retailer must take into account that there is a list of tricks they can (and should) use. And there isn’t just this, they must know that every inch of their retail space should be carefully arranged, in order to have more sales; and I’m not only talking about the design, I’m talking about creating an atmosphere: when it comes to this, you have plenty to consider.

If you want to create an immersive brand experience, you must think about the location, décor, employee uniforms, lighting, art, temperature, music and increasingly smell, and you must know how to combine them all to create the best one. The combination of visual, tactile and intangible elements in a physical retail space is so important because the factors can influence the customer and his shopper behavior, including purchase intent.

It is known that our brains are strongly tuned into scent. Of the five senses, the sense of smell is by far the most powerful. 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. Here’s why scent is so important: unlike our other senses, it travels immediately through various parts of our brains, instead of being processed centrally first.

This means that, as the sense of smell acts directly to the limbic system, it deals with instinctive or automatic behaviors and immediately evokes memories and feelings without being filtered and analyzed by the brain. As a consequence, it clearly affects memory, emotions, and moods, along with the shopping behavior in retail stores. Moreover, the smell can evoke memories and feelings, and it is very likely that if the customers like it, they’ll grow attached to the brand.

Our bodies treat the sense of smell differently than they treat other senses, and scientists estimate that there are a number of reasons for that. From the oldest times, when hunting and gathering food to finding healthy mates were the main activities, humans link smells with memories that recall desire, happiness, or even fear; and this has always been biologically useful for us.

Wondering though why would you invest in scent marketing? Well, human physiology and psychology have a theory: if you emphasize the importance of the sense and link it quickly and deeply to positive memories, the customers can repeat those experiences — and if you link it to negative memories, you help the customers avoid them. But wait, there’s more! If you couple these biological processes with our other senses that add context, you have a recipe for developing that positive brand experience mentioned earlier.

Now that you’ve seen how this works, let me show you how one of the most popular scents, the cinnamon, influences your customers’ brains when shopping. It is known now that certain smells can have an impact on what and how much a customer buys, and there are even studies about that. The research discovered that, even unperceived by shoppers, the smell of cinnamon can stimulate them into buying more “prestigious” items.

The “Spatial Perceptions” in Retail Stores

According to a study led by authors at Stevens Institute of Technology, City University of New York, and Temple University, which analyzed how certain smells impacted consumers’ “spatial perceptions” in retail stores — and how this, in consequence, affected their feelings of power and their shopping behaviors, the temperature of smells has a great impact on customers. This means that, depending on it, they perceive the space around them differently, which influences whether they feel powerful or powerless – these two being the key words. The temperature can either create a sensation of coolness (like lavender), or a sensation of warmth (like cinnamon).

According to the authors of the study, people who smell cinnamon in a store are most likely to perceive it as a warmer and more crowded place, this leading to them feeling less powerful. This doesn’t really seem to make sense when it comes to the fact that cinnamon increases sells, but it actually does: “This can lead them to compensate by buying items they feel are more prestigious.”, say the authors.

It might have something to do with how shopping activates certain parts of the brain and makes them feel good, thing also known as retail therapy. It is postulated that perhaps buying something after feeling crowded or powerless is an attempt to boost dopamine levels, activate the pleasure wires in the customers’ brains, and implicitly to feel better about themselves – because we all know that this is some sort of self-protection.

In the study, a number of people in the room and its temperature didn’t change at all, but the participants who smelled cinnamon felt it was warmer and more crowded compared to those that didn’t. The authors have demonstrated that in a store’s environment which is warmer scented and by default perceived as more socially crowded, customers deal with a greater need for power. A manifestation of this thing is an increased preference for premium products and brands or even the purchase of them.

We have to establish a thing: the sense of smell is quite compelling; one can not recall memories only by looking at pictures or even hearing an old song from a distant time. The sense of smell is far stronger than that. And though some retail companies have already used the power of scent to manipulate their customers, impregnating their stores with the pleasant smells of things we all (at least hypothetically) love, like chocolate and bakery, to stimulate the purchases – the authors of the most recent study believe that it’s important to show first how the fragrance in an environment affects customers’ perception of the space surrounding them in that moment, and how this, by default, may increase the purchase of prestigious products. That being said, an easy trick retailers can use for that is to manipulate social density perception, by using a subtle and also relatively inexpensive application of ambient scenting in their store.

All in all, according to Madzharov and colleagues (the authors of the study), there are two types of scents: some of them, such as vanilla and cinnamon, are perceived to be warm; on the other side, peppermint, eucalyptus, and lavender are normally recognized as cool scents. The warm scents can considerably reshape customers’ perception of higher social density in-store, which leads them to esteem the environment around them as more “socially dense” or more crowded. At this time, the power compensatory preference barges in. The psychology of this is simple: customers care about their status and power, and when they feel they lose them because of the decrease in perceived control over their social environment, they want them back: the solution is purchasing premium products.