The sound of spending

Stereo, sound By Mark Fletcher, Shopscience

It seems that everyone is an expert on how best to run a retail store. But in the end, managing your shoppers will give you the most cost effective results.
Good customer service will always be critical, however, there are a raft of other small changes you can make to have a positive impact on the size of your average sale and loyalty of your customers.

The starting point is understanding that the best research shows that just five percent of shoppers’ buying decisions are made consciously, with the rest made without the shopper even being aware of what is influencing their choices.

One way to leverage the other 95 percent is via store ambience. In technical terms, store ambience refers to the subtle stimulation of the emotional centres in a shopper’s brain to create desired responses.
Store ambience works through all of the five senses, however, it is in the smells and sounds of a store that most retailers are able to make the biggest impact.


Every consumer knows how the delicious smell of a hot bread bakery, or the fetching aroma as a barista makes your coffee in front of you, increases enjoyment. Unfortunately, these scents are not appropriate in most retail environments. But before we get too excited, just how much impact can ambient scent have on shoppers?

Let’s start with a few facts:

  • Scents can raise positive product ratings by 25 percent
  • Customers linger 40 percent longer in appropriately scented area
  • Scent can increase purchase intent by 80 percent.

Some of the research behind these figures makes for interesting reading. An oft-quoted study involves Nike running shoes presented to two identical sets of consumers. One set viewed the shoes in a room with a light floral scent, while the others were in an unscented room. Not only did 84 percent prefer the shoes viewed in the scented room, but these consumers also estimated the scented room shoes to cost around $10 more than the other pair.
A study in a home improvement store found that compared to normal customers, 49 percent of those exposed to the smell of freshly cut lawn perceived the sales staff to be more knowledgeable about the store’s products.

Another experiment by a home décor store established that when orange scent was sprayed in the store, the average sale went from $50.50 to $62.44.
The most compelling evidence of the power of scent in retailing is the number of global brands who have invested in scenting their stores.

At Bloomingdales, for example, different scents are used in different departments, such as coconut in swimwear, baby powder in infant wear, and lilac in lingerie. Hugo Boss has gone so far as to create a signature fragrance of musk with a hint of citrus it considers a core element of its branding.

All this sounds good, but what scent should a retailer use in their own store? The starting point for choosing a store scent is to think about how you want your shoppers to feel and behave. While every retailer wants customers to spend more, there may be other ways of influencing customers that could be just as important, particularly in generating repeat visits and customer loyalty. For instance:

Encourages the preference for, and purchase of, high value luxury items. May suit a jewellery store.

Encourages shoppers to browse longer and to spend more. Speciality stores with a myriad of product may find this scent effective.

Lavender, vanilla, chamomile
These three scents help shoppers to relax and could be useful when if a store faces onto a crowded and busy high street to create a calming atmosphere.

Apple and cucumber
Surprisingly, shoppers exposed to these scents perceive the store as larger.This effect may be particularly appropriate for smaller stores seeking to create a perception of being more substantial.

The most compelling reason for experimenting with the use of different scents in store is that you can easily and cheaply try alternative scents until you find something that works.

Smaller stores can start with scented candles, while larger stores can start scenting a particular department or area. If nothing else, you staff will probably appreciate it.


Sound, or more specifically, background music, is another proven store ambience strategy that can be implemented and evaluated quickly and  heaply.

The biggest problem with sound in stores is that store managers or staff may want to play the music that they want to hear, which may not always be the music that will have the desired effects on shoppers.

Just as with scents, global retailers have found background music to be extremely effective. Christy Kilmartin, Adidas AG (Germany) Senior Director Concept to Consumer, says music features in the 12,000 company-owned Adidas stores.

“It is really important. Music informs brand perception and needs to be bang on – it is a delineator for us, and its woven strongly into the Adidas DNA. It is vital that we create a homogenous tone of voice,” says Ms Kilmartin.

Both Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch use specially selected music to get shoppers in the mood to buy their products. In Australia, shoppers in  Woolworths supermarket can sometimes catch an Abba song playing in the background, and it’s remarkable how many shoppers can be seen
humming along as they push their trolleys.

Not surprisingly, shoppers who are enjoying the music are more likely to continue walking up and down the aisles.

It has been suggested by some sociological researchers that particular tracks from the baby boomer era can also work with millennials who have learned to enjoy the same songs from Playstation’s Guitar Hero and similar games. Research suggests that:

  • Hearing popular music leads to more impulsive decisions, which can be desirable in convenience stores
  • Less well known music helps shoppers to better focus and process information, a behaviour that can be important when products require explanation by sales assistants
  • Classical music increases perceptions of quality and is appropriate for luxury items
  • Moderate tempo music encourages shoppers to move more slowly and is used in department stores
  • Up-tempo music can create a sense of excitement, which can be good for youth apparel stores, but the excitement of such music can also lead to shoppers moving more quickly and choosing less items
  • Playing music that shoppers like can reduce the annoyance of waiting in line at a register, for a changeroom, or waiting for a staff member
  • Background music will have a stronger impact on shopper decisions made in a hurry, as shoppers are less likely to be thinking rationally and are more susceptible to emotional cues.

It is critical to ensure that whichever playlist you choose for your store that it is not so repetitive as to annoy your own staff. Fortunately, retailers can easily utilise internet music streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify, which allow users to select a genre that will play for days before repeating a track.

It is also important not to overwhelm customers with too many changes at once. Start by experimenting with the background music playlist. Once you get this right, move on to trying some different scents.

There is much that can also be done with colour and visual perception, physical touch, and even store temperature, but smell and sound are the best place to start, and the results can be well worth the effort.

Mark Fletcher is Director at ShopScience and a speaker on shopper decision processes. He can be contacted on, or visit



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