Music, Smell, and Holiday Shopping

Do environmental cues influence our shopping behavior?

Posted Dec 23, 2015

Image courtesy of
Source: Image courtesy of

At the time of writing this post, we are in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Halloween candy has long been consumed, Thanksgiving meals digested, Hannakah candles lit, Solstice passed. All that’s left now is Christmas.

Of all those holidays, Christmas is arguably the most ubiquitous, in particular for those who happen to enter a retail store sometime between September and December. What gets us first—and what seems to cause many a bit of consternation, particularly in the early fall months—is not the visual decorations, but the music. The sounds of bells being jingled, halls being decked, and santa babies leaving gifts.

It seems as if the retail store music hits us first, which is very likely quite intentional. Why? In large part because of the influence music has on consumer behavior; namely how music impacts consumer mood, which in turns influences—hopefully in a positive way—consumer evaluations of the store and their purchasing behavior.

Another environmental cue with a strong affective component is smell. Think about it—and we’ve all had this experience—think about a time when you caught a whiff, and that whiff took you back to a particular person, place, or time. Smell, like music, has strong connections to our emotional memory systems. In addition, smell, also like music, can influence consumer behavior, such as attracting customers to a store (think of candy shops and those delicious-smelling Bath and Body Works-types of stores).

What, then, might be the influence of combining these two ambient forces of music and smell? Could that influence our shopping behaviors?

This particular question was addressed in a study published 10 years ago in the Journal of Business Research. Participants in this study were asked to provide feedback on a fictional “new” retail store, evaluating its environment and merchandise. Unbeknownst to participants, while learning about and evaluating this “new store,” they were listening to music—Christmas music or non-Christmas music—and the room was scented—Christmas scent or no scent.

Study results had less to do with the Christmas/non-Christmas cues themselves, and more to do with congruency of the ambient environment. In other words, participant’s rated the “new store” more favorably in the congruent Christmas music/Christmas scent condition, whereas ratings were lower in the Christmas music/no scent condition.

With that, the researchers encouraged retailers to be mindful and intentional in their selection of environment cues, and to consider implementing just one cue—music or scent—to avoid the possibility of an unfavorable interaction between the two that may negatively impact consumer behavior.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Spangenberg, E. R., Grohmann, B., & Sprott, D. E. (2005). It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: The interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting. Journal of Business Research, 58(11), 1583-1589. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2004.09.005