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The Smells That Make Shoppers Spend More

Updated Oct 23, 2023

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While shopping, you might want to pay more attention to how things smell in the stores you visit. Those scents just might make you spend more. While lighting and music can play big roles in how much people spend, research has indicated that certain kinds of smells can also inspire shoppers to spend more.

What is scent marketing?

Scent marketing is simply the strategic use of fragrance at specific consumer touchpoints. The right scent can allow you to create an instant emotional connection with the customer and make the shopping experience more memorable.

It is both aggressive and subtle. It is aggressive because it allows businesses to reach people beyond the confines of their shop as the chosen scent can be wafted through open doors and windows. It is subtle because most consumers don’t realize the scent they’re smelling is intentional rather than coincidental.


Want to learn more about the many kinds of marketing? Read our small business marketing guide.

The power of scent

Scents can influence people’s emotions, so they have the potential to affect consumer behavior, according to ThoughtCo. Aromas of lavender, basil, cinnamon, and citrus are relaxing, whereas peppermint, thyme and rosemary are invigorating. Ginger, cardamom, licorice, and chocolate tend to stir romantic feelings, while rose promotes positivity and happiness.

Simple smells, as opposed to complex blends of scents, are powerful motivators when it comes to spending, researchers at Washington State University found. That’s because simple smells, such as citrus and pine, don’t require much mental processing from the shopper, freeing their brains to conjure images associated with these fresh scents.

“What we showed was that the simple scent was more effective,” said Eric Spangenberg, one of the study’s authors and dean of the Washington State University College of Business at the time of the study.

For the study, the researchers developed two scents: a simple orange scent and a more complex orange-basil-green-tea scent. For 18 days, the researchers watched more than 400 customers in a home decorations store as the air held the simple scent, the complex scent or no scent.

The study revealed that the 100 consumers who shopped in the presence of the simple scent spent an average of 20% more.

In a series of experiments, researchers had students solve problems under various conditions. They found that the students solved more problems, in less time, when a simple scent was in the air, compared with when a complex scent or no scent was used.

Spangenberg said the research underscores the need to understand how scents affect customers.

“Most people are processing it at an unconscious level, but it is impacting them,” he said. “The important thing from the retailer’s perspective and the marketer’s perspective is that a pleasant scent isn’t necessarily an effective scent.”

Published in the Journal of Retailing, the study was co-authored by Andreas Herrmann, of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland; David Sprott, of Washington State University; and Manja Zidansek, also of Washington State University.


Make sure your e-commerce site has a detailed list of your products and/or services, is easy to navigate, and makes checkout a breeze.Use historical sales data and analytics to project how much your customers are likely to spend in the next quarter.

The psychology of popcorn

Another way to think about scent marketing is how it works at a movie theater. People walk in and the first thing they notice is the smell of popcorn. This is not an accident. The majority of money made by a theater is from the concessions sold, not the movie tickets.

Even theaters that sell full meals in dine in stadiums have popcorn popping when consumers first come through the door because it provides context for the experience that is about to occur. Scent association not only reminds movie goers of all of their past theater experiences, but it also reminds them of the snacks they’ve eaten and that they can treat themselves to again.

How do businesses use scent marketing?

As online retailers continue to dominate sales, scent marketing has become a way for brick-and-mortar stores to enhance the shopping experience and boost sales.

Scent marketing is used to trigger a certain emotion in potential customers, subtly encouraging them to not only incorporate a scent into their brand identity, but also to spend more time in their stores or places of business to improve customer experience, all the while creating positive memories with those scents that will keep them going back to the product or service (brand loyalty).”

One study published in the International Journal of Marketing showed that scent marketing increased Nike customers’ intent to purchase by up to 84%, suggesting scent marketing could have a powerful effect on consumer behavior. Another case study indicated that gamblers put 45% more quarters into slot machines when the area is artificially scented. The research noted that our sense of scent is linked directly to our limbic system, which controls memory and emotion, and that ambient scent offers the following benefits:

  • Ambient scent boosts recognition and memory performance.
  • It increases the time consumers spend in a shop or business.
  • It elevates mood and a person’s level of enjoyment
  • It improves the quality of a service encounter.

Scent marketing can cause customers to associate your business with pleasant feelings and memories. If you choose the right scents for your target audience, scent marketing could improve customer retention.

How can you make your business smell good?

There are many ways to use scent marketing in your business. Hyatt Place, for example, has been utilizing scent branding for years. According to Harvard Business Review, Hyatt Place launched with a signature scent it calls “Seamless,” which incorporates blueberries and floral notes on a base of vanilla and musk and uses this blended scent throughout its Hyatt Place properties. For Hyatt, like other companies using scent branding, the goal is to associate the hotel with a pleasant scent and trigger a subconscious association with the brand.

At Walt Disney World in Florida, visitors to the Magic House at Epcot Center are relaxed and comforted by the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Singapore Airlines uses a patented scent it calls Stefan Floridian Waters, according to ThoughtCo. The company uses the scent in its aircraft, the flight attendants wear it as a fragrance, and it is used to launder in-flight towels.

Scent marketing even has applications beyond increased spending. Scents have been shown to decrease anxiety levels in cancer patients awaiting MRI tests (vanilla) and dental patients in waiting rooms (lavender). The science of scent marketing and scent branding has advanced to the point where companies can be very specific about the desired reaction. If the retailer is looking for a high-end appeal, the smell of leather is the way to go. Linen and cotton evoke cleanliness, good health, and springtime.

Influencing the way your customer thinks and acts is the goal of all businesses who want to sell their goods or services. Scent marketing is simply one more method to add to your marketing strategy. Whatever atmosphere you seek, you can likely get it through a scent or combination of fragrances.

Marisa Sanfilippo
Contributing Writer at
Marisa is an award-winning marketing professional and contributing writer. She has worked with businesses large and small to help them drive revenue through integrated marketing campaigns and enjoys sharing her expertise with our audience.
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