• Tech

Scents and Sensibility

6 minute read
Jeremy Caplan

You might call it muzak for the nose. The latest technique for putting consumers in a spending mood is to fill the air with a seductive scent. That’s why Select Comfort, a nationwide chain of 400 bedding stores, is in the market for one that will soothe shoppers browsing for bedding. ScentAir, one of several firms that design scents for retail settings, has suggested a mix of cashmere wood, amber, cardamom, cinnamon and bergamot. The blend, it says, will convey quiet repose.

The demand for these olfactory services–by stores, hotels, casinos and even museums–is stimulated by a growing body of research that demonstrates how smells affect consumer behavior. Advertising studies in Martin Lindstrom’s book Brand Sense suggest that although most contemporary commercial messages are aimed at our eyes, many of the emotion-triggering moments people remember on a given day are actually prompted by smell. And scents, experiments have shown, can evoke an array of sensations. Citrus notes, for example, are perceived to be energizing or invigorating, whereas vanilla can suggest warmth and comfort.

Coming up with just the right aroma is a complex process. For the Westin hotels, ScentAir created a fragrance that melds green tea, geranium, green ivy, black cedar and freesia to evoke a peaceful aura in the chain’s lobbies. “Tea, the ascendant note, suggests serenity and tranquillity,” says ScentAir CEO David Van Epps. “Black cedar adds body, fullness to the aroma. As for the rest of the tones, each has its own characteristics, and it’s as much an art as a science.”

Sony hoped to benefit from both last year when it decided to try to broaden the mix of people shopping for consumer electronics in its SonyStyle stores to include more women. “Our products are about seeing and hearing,” says the stores’ creative director, Christine Belich, referring to Sony’s cameras, TVs and music gear, “so it seemed natural to add smell to create an immersive sensory experience.”

After interviewing Belich and her staff with questions like “If your consumer was going on vacation, where would she go?” and “What color floor tiles might she pick?” ScentAir’s mixologists researched their inventory of 1,500 aromatic oils to find the ones that would produce the right blend to capture the essence of the stores. Over the next six months, about 30 concoctions were FedExed from ScentAir’s lab in Charlotte, N.C., to the Sony offices in New York City; a steady stream of comments and suggestions flowed the other way, until a final pool of five candidates emerged.

When Van Epps met with SonyStyle’s executive team to unveil the short list of smell contenders–carried in small glass vials in his metal lab briefcase–he asked each member to give personal preferences and professional assessments. He says that helps clients avoid having individual quirks (a hatred of apples caused by having to eat one every day after school or a resentment of violets because they call to mind being ditched on prom night) cloud the search for a suitable corporate scent. Each smelling session was limited to just a couple of samples, since the nose’s ability to discern differences declines as choices rise. Toward the end of the process the Sony execs had nearly settled on a blend of orange and vanilla, with a hint of cedarwood added to the mix so the feminine-leaning smell wouldn’t scare off men. (A male exec had suggested a drop of bourbon, but it was decided that cedarwood would provide a similar yet subtler tone.) Then, sitting around a conference table strewn with perfumer’s blotter paper, the execs had a final request: Could the orange be snazzier, more of a blood orange? ScentAir dug into its library of about 40 orangey smells, weeding out the tangerine-tinged and the clementine-clad before hitting the jackpot with a robustly bloody red orange.

Not everyone appreciates retailers’ attempts to lead consumers around by the nose. “What might be delicate and delightful to one person is enough to give the next person a migraine,” says Gabrielle Glaser, author of The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival. To Glaser, the idea that Sony would target women with a smell is patronizing. “It’s like ‘Oh, Mommy, we understand you.’ So condescending!”

But retailers say she misinterprets their intent. “We’re not trying to manipulate people,” responds Sony’s Belich. “It’s subtle, and it’s mainly about making sure people have a pleasant experience.” SonyStyle now uses the scent in each of its 37 stores.

Other businesses are signing on too, some choosing scents that carry apt connotations for particular products they want to sell, a technique called billboarding. Bloomingdale’s, for instance, billboards the smell of baby powder in its infant-clothing department, while hints of lilac and coconut waft around the department store’s intimate-apparel and swimsuit displays. One of ScentAir’s most popular aromas, freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, has been adopted widely by sellers of model houses and real estate agents in North Carolina to make prospective buyers feel at home the instant they walk in. Upscale ice cream chain Emack & Bolio’s recently adopted a waffle-cone smell to attract patrons to the scoop shop within the Orlando, Fla., Hard Rock Hotel, where sales had been flagging. The effect? Ice cream sales shot up more than a third. To stave off olfactory fatigue–customers typically stop noticing a smell after a minute or two–some retailers use a timed sequence of targeted smells to “decorate” an environment.

Signature smells, like Sony’s or Westin’s, can cost between $5,000 and $25,000, depending on how complicated they are to design. Companies also pay monthly subscription fees to rent fan machines that disperse the scents into the air. Smaller retailers can buy simple smells–sage and pomegranate, rosemary eucalyptus, white ginger–off the rack for $100 a month, including fan rental. And ScentAir is expanding its repertoire by cooking up smells that are meant not to charm but to repel: last month it re-created the smell of burning electrical wire for a military simulation; earlier, it had dreamed up dinosaur dung for a children’s museum.

The firm is taking its smell sense even closer to consumers and hoping to cash in on the $8.3 billion Americans already spend annually on air fresheners, candles and scented plug-ins. In August, ScentAir began offering a small home version of its smell machine for $30 a month. It comes with scent choices like eucalyptus mint, citrus musk and lavender with ylang-ylang, a derivative of a south Asian evergreen tree said to have aromatherapeutic benefits. “By comparison,” says Van Epps, “plug-ins scream Grandma’s bathroom aerosol.”

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