Smart SpendingSmart Spending

Beyond new car smell: How retailers trick our senses

Example: Red in a McDonald's causes people to eat more quickly, making room for the next customers.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 3, 2011 1:38PM

This guest post comes from Aaron Crowe at


As much as shopping is a sensory experience -- we love to browse, touch products, try stuff on -- there are ways that stores are manipulating our senses while we shop that we aren't even aware of.


Using sound, taste, smell, touch and visual sensory inputs, companies can lock a shopper's attention without the shopper knowing why.  Post continues after video.

What's the upside for the store? This can increase sales up to 300%, says Joseph Carrabis, founder of NextStage Evolution, a company that helps online businesses get customers using some of these methods.


Here's how some of the tricks work:


Good smells can have a halo effect and put shoppers in a positive mood, which affects their perception of a product, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist who is the founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "If something smells good, it is good. If you view a product in a positive way, you're more likely to buy," he says.

Women are more attuned to it than men, according to his research, and adding smells to attract shoppers is mostly done in higher-end stores. Flower smells are popular on stores' lower levels, and the combination of leather, baby powder and citrus smells can increase shoe sales more than just using leather alone.


In fact, the new car smell in a car is often artificially created. Most people prefer the smell of artificial leather in cars because real leather can have a harsh, bitter smell.


And not only will people buy something when enticed by good smells, but they'll pay more. Hirsch says his studies have found that shoppers were willing to pay $10 more for Nike shoes when a mixed floral aroma was in the air. Also, stores can use smells to direct shoppers to certain areas, where they're then likely to spend more because of the scent.


An upcoming story in the Journal of Consumer Research points out how scents can increase sales. Researchers found that a gentle scent of vanilla makes it more likely that women shopping for consumer electronics or mutual funds will make the purchase. This might be because vanilla is a scent found in breast milk, and women associate the scent with confidence, says Bruce D. Sanders, a consumer psychologist and retailing consultant.


This kind of enticement is difficult to achieve online, naturally, but shoppers can still be enticed with pictures. One of Carrabis' clients was a specialty cake bakery that increased sales by having a photo of a smiling mom pulling a cake out of an oven.


"The sensory system will go back into sensory memory and pull back the image of a cake," Carrabis says.


Sight is another area shoppers respond to, colors particularly. "Reds generate excitement associated with fast movement and enhanced appetite," Sanders says. "At McDonald's, red causes you to eat more quickly, creating space for the next customer. At Target, red makes it more likely you'll pile your purchases into the cart quickly. On the other hand, blues tend to produce leisurely, deliberative shopping and a personality of the store that researchers call 'sincere.'"


The colors of a website can convey messages, from authoritative black to youthful pink or optimistic yellow.


Combining certain colors with other sensory cues can multiply the effect, Sanders says. Cool colors on the walls combined with a lavender scent and slow-tempo background music in a fine-dining restaurant can slow diners down and increase high-profit liquor sales.


When adding sound to websites, Carrabis advises clients to start the music low and increase lightly. "Always give the visitor the option to turn the sound on or off," he says. Nine out of 10 people will pay attention to the sound signal if it is introduced thoughtfully.


Matching musical beats to a user's breathing rhythms, even if the website is hideous-looking, will keep them on a website without knowing why they're still there, he says. "You can basically entrance someone and really keep them on your site."


The idea is to keep music just low enough in the background that shoppers aren't distracted by it. "If people start paying too much attention to the music, then they're not paying attention to what you're selling, unless you're selling music," Carrabis says.


The downside of having your senses manipulated, Carrabis says, is that even if you're on the lookout for it, you can't avoid it and will still want to pick up the item you're being pitched. As sophisticated as average consumers are, they don't know enough to know when they're being stimulated to buy. The goal of the seller is to not make it obvious.


"The first thing to be aware of is that when a marketing signal is so obvious, then that signal is what's being paid attention to, and not what's being sold," he said.


More from and MSN Money:

Mar 4, 2011 12:47PM
Everyone enjoys pleasant sounds and aromas. The sucker - born every minute, as Phineas T Barnum noted - will be the most likely candidate to buy in response to these these stimuli.
Mar 9, 2011 10:30AM
I had a bit of a chuckle when it came to the "sound" topic. Stores don't realize how negative an effect it can have. The wrong type of music or music that's too loud makes me just what to get the he** out of the store as quickly as possible. I left a mall when store after store played "Feliz Navidad" in succession. You couldn't escape it. I finally went into the only store that wasn't playing it and, you guessed it, it was the next one up. I then said never mind I'll buy what I want somewhere else and left the mall. I can't stand "Feliz Navidad" to this day either.
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.