The aroma of baking bread wafts through the supermarket, even when the ovens are empty. The breezy scent of coconut oil floats through the bathing suit aisle of the department store when summer is months away.
Welcome to the world of scent marketing. Retailers are increasingly using ambient scents to induce shoppers to stay longer, spend more and maybe even behave a little more kindly toward fellow shoppers.
Beyond just creating a pleasant environment, the nascent scent marketing industry uses fragrance to tap into memory and emotion to strengthen brand identity.
Retailers are wary of discussing it lest they be accused of manipulation, but the fragrance makers, researchers and advertising agents gathered in Miami Beach for the ScentWorld conference this month were happy to explain their art.
“Control is one of the most important parts,” Scentevents founder Neal Harris said. “Too much could be way too much.”
His Los Angeles company provided the cotton candy aroma that sweetened arenas around the world during pop singer Katy Perry’s recent candy-themed “California Dreams” tour. At a Hollywood Halloween party, he did what theme parks are rumored to do by releasing a popcorn aroma to put guests in a snacking mood.
“When you smell popcorn you want to eat it. But they’re not popping the popcorn there,” Harris said.
His company uses fragrance-infused ceramic beads and diffusers to fan the scent through a room. For larger spaces, the scent goes into the air conditioner or ventilating system. It’s a dry system so it doesn’t linger too long.
“You probably don’t want to smell coffee at midnight,” Harris said.
Scent marketing is expanding because the technology has become more sophisticated and more affordable, enabling a small retailer to scent the environment for less than US$100 a month, said Jennifer Dublino, chief operating officer for the five-year-old Scent Marketing Institute.
“Years ago, when this first came out, it was kind of clunky,” she said.
Companies in the industry are privately held and do not report earnings, but Dublino estimates their revenues at US$80 million to US$100 million annually worldwide.
That includes ambient scenting and the use of scents in ink, plastics, rubber and textiles, but not traditional uses of scent, such as consumer packaged goods, food, cosmetics and personal fragrances.
Simon Faure-Field, chief executive of the Equal Strategy consulting firm, has been nicknamed “the smell guy” for his efforts to incorporate scent to build brands.
For a New Balance shoe store in Beijing, he introduced Chinese shoppers to the 105-year-old US brand by creating “a total sensory experience” designed to convey heritage and craftsmanship. He used a nostalgic wood and leather scent, decorated the wooden-floored store with vintage ads and compiled a soundtrack of 1950s bebop music.
Shoppers spent twice as much money as in similarly sized stores elsewhere, partly because the atmosphere induced them to linger, he said.
“The longer a customer stays in a store, the more [they] spend,” Faure-Field said.
Success stories from other companies have inspired others to jump on the bandwagon, Dublino said.
Casinos were early adapters, experimenting with scent as they fought to neutralize cigarette and cigar smoke that chased gamers away. Theme parks use artificial scents to help create the illusion that guests are in ancient castles or forests. Upscale stores scent their baby goods department with the soothing smell of baby powder.