Selling Scents: How Commerce Has Embraced Olfactory Persuasion

Recognizable and natural scents do wonders for business, but what are their ethical ramifications?

Leveraging Scent as a Marketing Tactic

Our sense of smell remains a great way for companies to out perform their competitors, since it is our visual and aural faculties that are typically bombarded. Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz eliminated hot foods entirely in Starbucks to protect the smell of coffee at outlets worldwide. Christopher White of the Guardian recently wrote an article where he interviewed experts in “scent marketing”. According to Steven Semoff of Scent Marketing Institute:

Nike showed that adding scents to their stores increased intent to purchase by 80%, while in another experiment at a petrol station with a mini-mart attached to it, pumping around the smell of coffee saw purchases of the drink increase by 300%… 5 companies in the US control around 80% of the world market in scent marketing and an estimated 10-20% of retailers in the US are their customers.

Scent seems to be positioned as a great way of bringing authenticity and uniqueness to an experience. The process behind devising a suitable smell for a bedding or shoe store can be quite complex. People make all types of associations when it comes to aromas and therefore these provide a way of marking or branding an environment, especially retail. According to Mike Gatti, Executive Director of Marketing at the National Retail Federation:

It is fairly widespread here. A lot of retail companies use it, and its purpose really is to keep customers in your store, to create this welcoming environment – and it works; it does keep people in your store longer. It helps people feel better in their shopping, and in a lot of cases causes them to spend more money.

As a testament to its persuasive power, many speculate that our sense of smell is directly linked to the part of our brain that controls emotions. They also help develop instant associations with experiences.

The Ethics of Artificial Aromas

Would you be disappointed or upset if you found out that the smells in your local grocery store are fake? This can be a major problem for food grocers and supermarkets alike, where artificial smells lead to outright deception. But Nottingham Business School Professor Alex Hiller argues:

Yes, changing smells is manipulative – this is the whole point… I would argue that consumers realize and accept that in all artificial, and especially retail, environments, some mild form of manipulation does take place and it in no way constrains anyone’s freedom, autonomy or well-being.

An expert might reason this way, but would shoppers respond any differently? CBS recently singled out ScentAir and its role in a Brooklyn-based supermarket, where machines that were installed 2 months ago might have led to a 7% increase in sales. Other articles in TIME magazine point to similar facts in that they emphasize the reaping benefits this has for businesses, paying little to no attention to the ethical questions at hand. Is there an ethical complication here or is it all business-as-usual?

The Independent: “The smell of commerce: How companies use scents to sell their products” by Christopher White

Comments

Quantcast