DURHAM, N.C. — Retailers have long played Christmas music, knowing it not only inspires holiday cheer but can affect how long and how often shoppers browse. But research within the past decade, including a new study by Washington State University researchers, has found that combining tunes with simple smells could help retailers increase sales even more.
Looking over related scientific research — and making sure their sounds, music and displays match their customer base — could help stores improve the shopping experience and draw in business, says Eric Spangenberg, dean of the college of business at Washington State University.
Spangenberg, who has worked with companies such as Nordstrom and J.C. Penney on sensory retail research, has long studied how pairing scents with sounds impacts shopper behavior. In a 2003 study, he found that Christmas scents received better customer evaluations when paired with Christmas music.
A recent study that he helped author found that simple scents boost buying the most. For 18 days, the researchers watched more than 400 customers in a home decorations store as the air held different scents — orange-basil blended with green tea, simple orange and no particular scent at all. The 100 who shopped with the simple scent spent 20 percent more money, the researchers found. Though it’s tough to generalize across different markets and product segments, Spangenberg said the takeaway is that using an appropriate scent could boost sales. At the holidays, that can mean pine tree, spruce and cinnamon aromas, he said.
But while larger chains have the money and resources to develop playlists and signature scents based on the latest theories, many smaller retailers select their atmospherics based on intuition.
Still, fiddling with the atmospherics of a store can have unintended consequences.
Spangenberg said pairing the wrong scents with poorly suited music or failing to keep the sensory experience consistent could scare away shoppers. Faster-tempo music isn’t always a good idea, he said, as slower music encourages customers to linger.