How do you design shops and arrange products to maximise sales? Supermarkets know the importance of layout. Shoppers are confronted first by fresh produce to convince them that they need a trolley rather than a basket.
There is now a small army of experts who determine what is arranged, where and why. There are blue lights above the meat counter to make the meat look redder, but yellow lights in the fresh bread and cakes section to emphasise the golden nature of that product. And time spent in any shop is the best predictor of how much money is spent there. So shop designers are in the business of slowing you down and making you walk the length and breadth of the shop to find what you want. Mirrors slow people down, hence their popularity in department stores.
The idea is to increase impulse buying. But researchers have found that you need to get people in the right mood to maximise the effect. The window shopper, the harassed executive and the purposeful, list-driven, pragmatist can all be persuaded to dally, inspect and purchase when the right mood is created.
So how to quickly (cheaply and efficiently) change mood? The answer is in smells and music. Both have immediate associations. They have been described as emotional provocateurs. They seem to be both powerful and primitive. And they appear to work at an unconscious level.
Studies have shown that if you match music and product, people buy more. Play French accordion music in a wine shop and sales of French wine increase. Play stereotypic German bierkeller music and the Riesling flies off the shelves at twice the speed.
Music has powerful emotional associations and memories. Know an individual and you can induce happiness and sadness, pride and shame, sentimentality and coolness. The Scots fight better to the sound of the pipes; the English to the British Grenadiers.
Music is used to quicken the heart and the pace (marching music) as well as to relax. Few state occasions or indeed any with rites-de-passage significance take place without music to signify the mood and meaning of the occasion.
But the scientists are now beginning to play with smell or, if you prefer, aroma. It is now perfectly feasible to develop cheap, synthetic but impressively realistic scents of anything you fancy. Baking bread, warm chocolate, sea breezes, new car smell, or mown grass—it is all possible!
These new smells can be pumped into buildings at various points to maintain a consistent pong. And we have come a long way from chemically lemon-scented lavatory cleaner or sandalwood joss sticks.
Smells can make you hungry; or relaxed; or even cross. Some researchers have attempted to use smells to increase sales. They found the best smell to pump into a petrol-station mini market was “starched sheet smell.” Why? The answer appears to be that garage forecourts are dirty, oily places and that people have a clear concern with the cleanliness of the foodstuff (especially fresh pastries) in the shop. The exceptionally clean association of starched sheets does the business. People’s concern disappears and they buy more.
The idea is simple. Smells have associations, some of which are shared. Buildings such as hospitals and rooms like dentists’ surgeries have distinct smells that can almost induce phobia. Christmas has its own smell, as does the seaside.
But individuals too have specific smell associations. Thus unique smells like Earl Grey tea, Pear’s soap, or particular perfumes can have unusual effects on individuals. And the same smell can have opposite effects on two people. The smell of tea can bring pain and pleasure: memories of boredom and excitement.
We know that smell is generationally linked as a result of shared product experience and lifestyle. Far fewer people bake bread or live in the country than used to. Hence the comforting feeling associated with the scents of warm bread, or cut hay, or fresh horse manure may work on people of only a particular age cohort.
Music and smell work on mood. And moods don’t last long, though they can profoundly influence both thinking (decision making) and behaviour (shopping). The process can even be semi-subliminal: while people are initially aware of particular scents, they remain unaware of how their purchasing behaviour is changed.
Scientists are beginning to become more interested in this curious backwater. Those studying attraction (the effects of body odour), decision making and brain chemistry are curious as to precisely what physiological consequences occur once positive and negative moods are induced and familiar scents are detected. But they still do not know how people are able to distinguish between pepper and peppermint, or how wine tasters do their job. It was not thought of as a very serious area of enquiry until the commercial consequences were spelled out.
It is possible to imagine many positive and negative consequences of increasing our knowledge of the link between atmospherics and mood, and mood and behaviour. Some will object to a 21st century version of a new “hidden persuader;” others will be pleased to find someone has thought to ionize and aromatise their working, travelling and shopping environment.