top of page
  • Writer's pictureIvaylo Yorgov

CX Science: smells like sales growth


  • The presence of scents in consumer contexts improves mood, increases the evaluation of products and shopping experience, enhances recall, increases purchase intention, and marginally increases spending

  • Under the most favourable conditions, the presence of scents can lead to a 10% increase in consumer expenditures.

Now what:

  • Consider adding scents to improve the ambience, especially if you are a service business,

  • Use a scent that is unidimensional, familiar to people, fitting the environment, and mind the intensity. These are the conditions under which scents have the strongest impact on consumer behaviour.


Here's a riddle for you: What is the human sense that:

  • we typically undervalue but can lead to depression if lost

  • out of all senses, has the most direct linkage to emotions

  • is mostly learned instead of hard-wired

  • can make us spend 10% more

You got it - it is our sense of smell, or, technically, olfaction.

If you want to know how scents impact consumer behaviour and how to make the most out of them, just carry on reading.


Things to know about olfaction

It could be just the nerdy part of me talking, but I think there are some amazing facts about our sense of smell.

Take for example this finding: the same smell labeled 'parmesan cheese' makes people say they want to eat it; when labeled 'vomit' people, surprise surprise, avoid it.

Or this: "losing one’s sense of smell, a condition known as anosmia (e.g., from brain injury), is often associated with feelings of depression and a world described as 'dull and colourless'" (Sensory Marketing (p. 75))

Or the fact that ambient scents can enhance memory: "...participants played a memory game involving card pair locations on a computer screen while a pleasant scent was (or was not) emitted into the room. Later, during periods of deep sleep, the same scent was emitted (or not). The next day, those who had the scent present at both learning and during sleep showed improved recall accuracy (85.8% vs. 97.2%)." (Sensory Marketing (p. 83))

And before we proceed to the more consumer-relevant part, consider this: there is a theory that with the emergence of color vision we no longer needed a keen sense of smell. "The better you can see, the less acutely you need to smell. Animals, including humans, either have excellent color vision or an excellent sense of smell, but not both." (The Scent of Desire, p. 25) Fascinating!


Emotions and scents

What is truly unique about our sense of smell is that it is the sense with the closest and most direct relation to emotion of all.

"Smell and emotion are located in the same network of neural structures, called the limbic system. The limbic system is the ancient core of the brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain because we share it with reptiles, and sometimes called the rhinencephalon — literally, the 'nose - brain'." (The Scent of Desire, p. 3)

That olfaction has such a privileged position among the other senses explains why scents are so good in modifying our emotions. We form more robust memories when they are emotionally coloured. And second, our brains are association-making machines - they link and lump stuff together. These links then make it possible for a smell to evoke really vivid memories - think Christmas smells.

And finally, if there is a sense on which scientists agree that it is more nurture and nature-driven, it is the sense of smell. Evidence does exist that some of our reactions to smells are inherent - we become agitated from the smell of predators, for example. But other than this very narrow sense, our reactions to scents are learned, and the learning process follows the association mechanism we had a look at. There is nothing natural in us liking the smell of lavender or strawberries. It's mostly driven by what memories did we form with these scents.


What is the impact of scents on consumption?

Now, a lot of businesses have realized that scents can be powerful in affecting customer behaviour. Does it work and in what direction? How to maximize the impact of scents?

A recent meta-study by Holger Roschk and Masoumeh Hosseinpour integrating 671 available effects from other studies gives us the answers.

The findings - the presence of scents:

  • improves mood

  • increases the evaluation of products and shopping experience

  • enhances recall

  • increases purchase intention

  • marginally increases spending.

In a nutshell, if there is a scent in the space where consumers are, it makes them feel better and evaluate the products higher, which increases purchase intention as well.


What scent to use?

There are four elements that boost the impact of scents on consumer behaviour.

  1. Keep it simple: unidimensional scents work better than multidimensional ones. So lavender would work better than, say, lavender and orange or cinnamon.

  2. Stick to the well-known: scents people are familiar with have a higher impact on their behaviour.

  3. Make it fitting: scents should be appropriate for "the environment and its products and services" to work. Companies can investigate which scents people consider to match their offerings before deciding which ones to go for.

  4. Mind the intensity: at first, increasing the concentration increases the impact of the scent, but that is only to a certain level. After 60-80% of the people are able to detect the scent, a further increase brings nothing more (and can even be detrimental).

What can companies expect if these are all in place, i.e. under the most positive conditions? They modelled the data and when "Combining more favorable conditions, the presence (vs. absence) of a congruent, unidimensional, and familiar ambient scent resulted in a 10% increase [in consumer expenditures].". Imagine if you sell goods or services worth 10.000 EUR per day - add a scent that meets these characteristics and now your sales are worth 11.000 EUR. I bet that the return on investment is fantastic.


I hope this inspires you to investigate how to create an even better customer experience and make an impact on your business. My best wishes for a great day ahead!

CX Inspirations - card 14
Download PDF • 50KB

bottom of page