Smells Sell: Studies show pleasant odors put shoppers in the spending mood

Sometimes the antiques business stinks. Not the buying and selling part, but rather the smells that can accumulate in a store filled with used merchandise. Few things are more off-putting than to walk into a store and inhale the mildewy stew of odors that can be created by rooms full of used goods.

Have you ever walked into someone’s home and noticed residual odors from cooking, tobacco, poor cleaning or general dampness? The homeowner living with those odors seems to be oblivious of them. Shopkeepers, too, become immune to the odors in their stores. The odors of an antique store seem to come with the territory, like the sweet smell of lacquer in a refinishing shop or the greasy oil and gasoline mix of an auto repair garage.

On one of my recent antiquing forays I discovered a Goodwill Industries store and stopped in to have a look around. Had I walked into the store blindfolded, I would have known that I was in a Goodwill store. I have never been in a GW store that didn’t smell stale and musty. There may be some around that are fresh and inviting, but I’ve never been lucky enough to find one of them. I found the store’s atmosphere to be rather depressing, so I took a quick look around and then left.

Please understand: I don’t think that the merchandise in the Goodwill was in any way dirty or unsanitary. The smells that accompany used merchandise are hard to avoid. Dealers often buy items that have been stored for long periods of time in basements and attics. Furniture, clothing and books are made from porous materials, so they acquire the smells of their surrounding environment. Storing non-porous items like glassware, metals and plastics in attics and basements sometimes causes them to acquire a layer of dusty mildew that embeds itself into an item’s nooks and crannies. Dealers of used merchandise have to be especially careful that those odors don’t infect their shops, and cleaning the merchandise is often not enough to accomplish this.

Ten minutes after leaving the Goodwill, I entered a nearby antiques mall, and what a difference! With my first breath I inhaled the odor of popcorn. I love popcorn! It reminds me of fun times at the Cinemascope theaters of my youth; of county fairs, amusement parks and evening movies with the family. In my mind, popcorn equals fun. I spent a couple of hours at the mall investigating each booth, and I made a couple of purchases.

Was the merchandise at the antiques mall any cleaner than the merchandise at the Goodwill? No, it didn’t seem to be. But I lingered at the mall, and I spent money at the mall. I didn’t do that at Goodwill.


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You see, smells sell — or don’t sell, depending on the odor (or lack of odor). A 1996 study conducted by Professors of Marketing Ayn Crowley of Drake University and Eric Spangenberg and Pamela Henderson of Washington State University titled “Improving the Store Environment: Do Olfactory Cues Affect Evaluation and Behavior” [http://www.ecomist.co.za/Files/spangenberg_summary.pdf] proved that this is the case. The study used a variety of scenarios, including scented and non-scented stores, and concluded:

“The subject customers importantly perceived the scented store to be of higher quality in surroundings and merchandise with a heightened awareness in specific products and distinct purchase intentions. Of considerable interest was the finding that subjects in the no scent condition perceived having spent significantly more time in the store than they actually had. Suggesting that the time consumers spend examining merchandise, waiting in lines or waiting for help can be made to feel shorter by introducing an ambient scent.”

Pleasant, familiar smells are said to have a “halo effect” that puts shoppers in a good mood, and encourages them to spend. Dr. Alan Hirsch, the neurologist and research head of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago [http://www.smellandtaste.org/], found that shoppers were willing to pay $10 more for Nike shoes when a mixed floral aroma was in the air. Smells can be used to direct shoppers to certain areas of a store, where they are more likely to buy because of the ambient scent. Hirsch concludes, “If something smells good, it is good. If you view a product in a positive way, you’re more likely to buy.”

The idea that areas of a store can be segmented by smells means that this technique can be used at multi-dealer shows and at outdoor markets, as well. Too often, shoppers at outdoor markets are too intimidated to enter an empty booth. Inviting smells help to break down that invisible wall, and make shoppers more comfortable.

The concept that smells affect behavior has been around for a long time. Back in the 19th century, Sigmund Freud identified the link between odor and human emotions. Anatomically, the nose directly connects the olfactory lobe and limbic system, which is the area of the brain considered to be the seat of human emotion.

Ongoing research by Jeannette Haviland-Jones of Rutgers University supports the concept that smells sell (http://nbcnews.to/RbB2MY).

“Smell sells” research has identified which smells work best for which audiences and products. As you would suspect, there are companies that specialize in providing “just the right smell” for different types of retail stores. ScentAir [www.scentair.com] of Charlotte, N.C., has such retail giants as American Eagle Outfitters on their client list. South Africa’s EcoMist [www.ecomist.co.za] is franchising its in-store fragrancing business.

Bloomingdales uses scents whenever they launch a new product. Bloomingdales’ Dennis Dunn, the store’s merchandising director, says that smells are used to help brand products: coconut in the swimwear department, baby powder in the infants department and lilac in intimate apparel.

The key to using fragrance in an antique store is to use it sparingly; the odor should be subtle. There are aerosols for every retail use, and I’m not talking about just bathroom deodorizers. Aerosols are available in traditional “feel good” fragrances such as lemon and cinnamon, plus new ones like “new car” (for your Hot Wheels display), fresh baked bread and chocolate chip cookie [www.shopwiki.com/l/Gourmand%3A-Fresh-Bread-Air-Freshener]. Ask any realtor, and they will tell you that baking cookies when you show your home increases the chance of a sale. Seasonal smells also work well, and they don’t have to come from an aerosol can. Simmer some mulled cider on a hotplate at Christmas (don’t forget to turn it off when you go home!), and potpourri is good anytime.

If you simply want to minimize the odor of mildew, try Ozium air sanitizer.

Retailing doesn’t have to stink. Remember, smells sell.

About our columnist: Wayne Jordan is a Virginia licensed auctioneer, certified personal property appraiser, and accredited business broker. He specializes in the valuation and liquidation of estate and business assets. His column Behind the Gavel appears in every issue of Antique Trader. Learn more at www.waynejordanauctions.com, 276-730-5197 or auctioneer.wayne@yahoo.com.

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