Lindsay J. McCunn Ph.D


‘Tis the Season to Notice Retail Design (Or Not)

“Is that gingerbread I smell?”

Posted Dec 31, 2013

Happy holidays to you and yours! Better late than never, right? I planned to blog earlier this month but realized this post may be considered a buzz kill for some folks (me included). I openly admit to liking the distinct sense of occasion the holiday season brings. But “The Holidays” seem to arrive earlier and earlier every year… and I doubt I’m the only one to attribute this perception to the actions many retailers take in placing seasonal products, signs, symbols, and scents in consumers’ paths a full month and a half before the end of December.

Now that it’s the end of the month, I feel more comfortable pointing out that we’re meant to notice these tactics. It’s no surprise that most retail environments are designed to influence what shoppers see, hear, smell, and feel in order to impact spending choices. Did limited-time red and white take-away coffee cups cheerfully affect you this year? Or perhaps the jolly tunes playing in your favourite store made you smile? Maybe a yummy gingerbread smell at the mall made you forget about your budget?

Nodding your head? Here’s part of the reason why:

Retailers use environmental cues known as atmospherics to affect how consumers feel and, consequently, how much they spend (El Sayed, Farrag, & Belk, 2003; Turley & Milliman, 2000). I’ve alluded to what some of these cues are: lighting, music, store location, scent, and so on. Researchers have known for many years that physical and sensory attributes that evoke emotions (preferably pleasure) will have an impact on shopping behaviour (see Donovan & Rossiter, 1982). For example, people walk more slowly through supermarkets (and buy more) when the music played has a slower tempo (Milliman, 1982). The volume of music can affect shoppers’ pace, too. I’ve always thought these relations would be interesting to study when the season calls for holiday music in retail environments. Even though many traditional tunes are slow and sentimental, those played in stores and malls seem to be modern, upbeat, and loud versions of the classics. So, if store layouts are not designed to handle density well (and an increase in density is inevitable during December), holiday songs may benefit retailers by unobtrusively stimulating consumer mood, spending, and pace.

Encouraging people to move quickly through a retail setting using music seems a novel way to avoid overcrowding and any consequent impact on shoppers’ perceptions and cognitions about the store (Machleit, Eroglu, & Mantel, 2000). But this seems a little counterintuitive to me, because the faster I shop, the less mindful I feel about what I’m buying and why I’m buying it. Thus, even if I didn’t feel crowded, I would still experience some degree of stress as a consumer. Either way, I would still purchase intended items so the outcome for the retailer would be the same, regardless of the source of my stress. Hmm.  

Another cool way to impact shoppers’ behaviour is through smell. If an ambient scent is congruent with the product being sold, people may be more inclined to buy it (Bosmans, 2000). I wonder, though, if this connection translates to smells of a ‘season’ instead of a product. For instance, if a clothing store were to waft the smell of fir trees, baked goods, or anything wintery, would I feel more festive and decide to buy my Nana a sweater or a pair of socks?

Further research needed.

Overall, these atmospherics, among others (e.g., signage, lighting, layout, aisle length, décor), align with Mehrabian and Russell’s pleasure-arousal hypothesis (Mehrabian & Russell, 1974; 1975). Their model outlines how environmental cues affect emotions and arousal levels that then influence our decisions to approach or avoid something. Usually, people want to approach places or things that are moderately arousing and maximally pleasurable. The model treats our emotions as mediators between environmental settings, our personality traits, and behaviors. I bring this up because retailers’ techniques used to increase spending, brand loyalty, and the likelihood of word-of-mouth recommendations about a store or product can have a negative impact on people, too. I have a few friends who purposefully steer clear of stores and malls at this time of the year to avoid feeling manipulated.

Have you noticed atmospherics – or do they fly under your radar? Do environmental cues influence where you choose to shop or how much to spend? Maybe you just go with the flow and buy what you need, no matter how strongly the place smells of gingerbread? I know I’ll be paying more attention to these things next year… if I can help it.


Bosmans, A. (2000). Scents and sensibility: When do (in)congruent ambient scents influence product evaluations? Journal of Marketing, 70, 32-43.

Donovan, R. J., & Rossiter, J. R. (1982). Store atmosphere: An environmental psychology approach. Journal of Retailing, 58, 34-57.

El Sayed, I. M., Farrag, D. A., & Belk, R. W. (2003). The effects of physical surroundings on Egyptian consumers’ emotional states and buying intentions. Journal of International Consumer Marketing, 16, 5-27.

Machleit, K. A., Eroglu, S. A., & Mantel, S. P. (2000). Perceived retail crowding and shopping satisfaction: What modifies this relationship? Journal of Consumer Psychology, 9, 29-42.

Mehrabian, A., & Russell, J. A. (1974). An approach to environmental psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mehrabian, A., & Russell, J. A. (1975). Environmental effects on affiliation among strangers. Humanitas, 11, 219-230.

Milliman, R. E. (1982). Using background music to affect the behavior of supermarket shoppers. Journal of Marketing, 46, 86-91.

Turley, L. W., & Milliman, R. E. (2000). Atmospheric effects on shopping behavior: A review of the experimental evidence. Journal of Business Research, 49, 193-211. 

About the Author

Lindsay J. McCunn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in environmental psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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