by Roger Bensinger
published in Chain Drug Review
Particularly for the hyper-competitive chain drug store business, the growing body of research on scent adds impetus to the argument that taking control of the in-store scent environment is a worthwhile strategic objective.
With so many chains locating right across the street from each other and/or facing direct competition from the pharmacies of grocers and discounters just down the block, all aspects of the customer experience are under intense scrutiny and comparison. If pictures, lighting, music and visual displays are being used, why neglect customers’ sense of smell?
After all, smell is arguably a more primal — and powerful — faculty than many of us fully appreciate. While the physiology of scent has been well understood for decades, there is something a bit mysterious about its influence on behavior and cognition. For example, research shows that the mere presence of ambient scent in a store can cause visitors to feel better served by associates. Want your customers to feel less hurried as they wait to pick up their prescriptions? One top retailer in Europe diffused an ambient scent in its checkout areas and found that this did indeed contribute to a sense of time compression among shop- pers in the space.
Or consider a paper published in the Journal of Social Psychology. The experiment, which was repeated 400 times, proved that the pleasant scent of fresh-baked bread made shoppers more likely to help a “stranger” (played by a researcher) who had dropped a personal item and walked away. Another study showed people stayed longer, spent more money and felt more satisfied when in a scented space.
Scientists have recorded all kinds of other ways in which scent can cause people to engage in largely unconscious behavior, including being more honest at the cash register or giving more money to charity in a scented versus an unscented space. Exactly why scent brings out our “better angels” in this way is still unclear, but we do know that scent is processed in the same part of the brain that handles our emotions, memory and creativity.
Researchers now believe humans can distinguish more than 10,000 different aromas. And yet, when it comes to retail environments, there is a well-understood art and science to “getting scent right.” Just as inadequate understanding of the principles of visual merchandising can lead to visual clutter that confuses customers, it is possible to employ ambient scenting in ways that run at cross purposes to your goals. Flooding a space with such a strong scent that it irritates customers will create an experience that makes people want to flee your stores rather than linger in them. While some specific fragrances make people feel energized, others are soothing to the point of putting people to sleep. (In one Duke University study, the scent of lavender relaxed the subjects every bit as much as a physical massage.)
As you start to contemplate making more conscious use of scent in your stores, the first step is to look at precisely what you want to accomplish. Some drug stores are content to scent only the entrances to their stores, thereby creating what might be thought of as a “welcome effect.” By offering a nice (and subtly memorable) sense impression each time a shopper enters or exits the store, these chains aim to bolster customer experience and loyalty.
Another goal might be to boost sales of a particular item by suffusing the display with a congruent scent. Maybe the aroma of chocolate lingers around a Valentine’s Day display, making it irresistible to chocoholics, or a bubblegum scent enhances the appeal of a girls’ back-to-school display, making its brightly colored backpacks and other items seem even more lively and youthful.
Fragrance effects can even be used to accomplish such goals as remediating malodors. At some drug stores a profusion of painted vinyl and plastic products — imported beach balls, toys, household items and more — can cause problematic odors. Today, you do not have to just “cover up” those bad smells by overwhelming them with a stronger fragrance. Specific odor-canceling agents can be incorporated into scent formulations to eliminate the problem.
However, it is important to make sure your fragrance choice matches your brand and other objectives. To that end, it can be helpful to understand the “primary colors” of ambient scenting — otherwise known as the six scent families — and their likeliest emotional and cognitive effects.
For example, the citrus family — lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, bergamot and clementine — is a natural fit for drug stores because these scents are often described as crisp and clean. Typically, drug chains prefer to use scents that call to mind attributes such as “clean” and “fresh” and to avoid fragrance effects that are heavy, spicy or homey. Fragrances that evoke clean and fresh associations are more likely to inspire confidence in the cleanliness and sanitary conditions of the environment, which is something the drug sector also tends to emphasize in its merchandising strategies.
By contrast, floral scents such as rose, jasmine, gardenia, or- ange blossoms and violet are often most appropriate for up-scale fashion boutiques and jewelry stores. In a large drug store, florals could be used to scent a particular product display (possibly something in beauty), but they would not typically be used as a primary ambient scent for the overall selling space.
Likewise, if the goal is to use a seasonal display designed to get shoppers excited about a summer line of eco-friendly, outdoors-oriented products, the outdoorsy scent family could be appropriate. These fragrances include woodsy notes such as pine and cedar, green notes such as fresh green grass and mint and herbal notes of basil and sage. Outdoorsy scents are characterized as refreshing, clean and inspired by nature.
Possibly the most popular of the six scent families in the Americas, fruity fragrances are bright, uplifting, often youthful, and tend to be anxiety-reducing as well. Examples include peach, apple, pear, plum and apricot. As with the aforementioned B-T-S display, there are some possible uses for this scent family in drugstores.
For its part, the ozonic family could be likened to “the scent in the air after a thunderstorm.” It is usually described as airy and fresh, subtle and light. Ozonic fragrances are often used in small spaces, perhaps to reinforce the im- pression of a fresh, breezy and open atmosphere, and are ideal for stores that have competing scents due to a variety of scent- ed products for sale. An ozonic fragrance could be used in a smaller drug store (as is typically the case in Europe and Asia) to make it seem a bit more spacious than its actual footprint.
Lastly, gourmand aromas such as coffee and chocolate are designed to convey the scent dimension of a food; they can work well to supplement specific product displays. For example, certain coffee retailers are famous for boosting the aroma of their stores by using coffee-flavor ambient scenting formulations.
After choosing the right fragrance, the next step is to tackle the technology piece. Today, leading-edge scent-delivery technologies allow stores to control scent intensities in much the same way that employees dial the volume of in-store music up or down. Microtechnology can ramp up this efficiency even further. By converting aqueous or non-aqueous liquids into plumes of ultra-fine droplets (measuring about 1 micron in diameter), it is possible to create scent effects that blend with and uniformly treat the air in indoor spaces using just a tiny amount of hypoallergenic liquid.
Next-generation appliances give drug stores the ability to scent in zones or to simply scent the entire selling space using one, HVAC-integrated unit. Appliances should be programmable, taking into account traffic flow and store hours to ensure a consistent scent experience as well as keep scenting costs down.
All of us prefer pleasant-smelling places, and we associate scents with specific people, places, products and experiences. For those drug stores that haven’t yet taken the plunge, ambient scenting represents an untapped opportunity to express creativity and evoke moods. The key is to take an informed approach that matches brand attributes with the primal power of smell.
Roger Bensinger is executive vice president of Prolitec Inc., whose AirQ LEED enabling service is a leading provider of ambient scenting services to retailers and other businesses, with more than 60,000 installations across the globe. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.