Selling to the Senses

Changing your customer's sensory experience can boost sales

Written by Kyle Murray

When done effectively, the design of the shopping environment can attract key customer segments and increase their willingness to pay for products. In fact, there is a rapidly growing body of research examining how in-store atmospherics—that is, the shopping environment that retailers’ create—affect consumer behaviour.

My colleagues and I at the University of Alberta School of Retailing recently examined the impact that sunlight has on consumer spending. We found that more sunlight not only makes us feel better, it also increases how much we are willing to pay for the goods and services that we buy.

In one study, we looked at the daily sales of a local Edmonton store; in another we had students keep a diary of their purchases. In both cases, we looked at a number of weather variables—including heat, humidity, rain, snow, wind—and found that more sunlight resulted in more spending. We even used state-of-the-art lamps to create artificial sunlight in our lab and asked consumers how much they were willing to pay for a variety of common items. I was surprised to find that those who completed the survey under a sunlamp said they would pay significantly more than other consumers for the same items.

A basic tenet of psychology is humans are motivated to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. When shopping, this means we are driven to not only buy products that make us feel good but also to buy them in a store environment that promotes a positive mood. Conversely, we don’t want to shop in a store that brings us down.

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This desire to manage both our energy level and maintain a positive mood can even affect the products we buy. Dr. Fabrizio Di Muro, professor at the University of Winnipeg, and I recently completed a series of experiments in which we used colour, music and scent to induce specific moods (pleasant or unpleasant and relaxed or excited) in randomly assigned groups of consumers.

We found that when we didn’t induce a specific mood, consumers were indifferent to the products and service options we offered them. However, after introducing mood induction factors like colour, music or scent into the environment, we found that people had a stronger preference for products and services that maintained a happy mood and mitigated unpleasant ones. For example, when a lavender scent was introduced, or down-tempo music, to relax customers, more than 70% chose a relaxing product or activity, such as iced tea or playing golf. However, when we introduced a sharper grapefruit scent, or up-tempo music, more than 70% of the subjects chose an exciting product or activity, such as an energy drink or playing tennis.

Ultimately, what the current research tells us is that store environments can have a substantial impact on sales by attracting customers and increasing their willingness to pay for certain types of products.  Think, for example, of Abercrombie and Fitch’s dark, loud, perfume-scented stores that are so popular with tweens and teens. Similarly, The Apple Stores’ bright, friendly, touch-and-play atmosphere has been central to that company’s retail success. Other retailers leading the way in this area include Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, Starbucks, Safeway, Victoria’s Secret and Harry Rosen.

There is no single solution to creating an effective store environment, but our research does point to a couple key principles:

  1. Light has a powerful effect on improving consumers’ moods and opening their wallets.
  2. Although lighting is very important, colour, sound and scent also have a substantial effect on consumer spending. Retailers have less direct experience in managing these aspects of the environment, but they are beginning to experiment with new technologies to fill the gaps. Companies like Bloomingdales, Westin Hotels, and the Coors Brewing Company are using scent machines to create fragrances that they believe will make their products more desirable.

This research suggests that stores must go beyond having superior customer service and great products to be successful. They must also create a pleasant shopping atmosphere for customers that engages all the senses.

Dr. Kyle Murray is an associate professor of marketing and the director of the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta’s School of Business. Read more about his research at

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