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Shops must mix festive scents and sounds to tempt the buyer

December 22, 2004 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

Half measures could mean retailers lose out on Christmas business.

Most shoppers acknowledge that when stores entice them in with festive music and scents at Christmas time, they are encouraged to buy more.

But new research suggests that it may not be quite so simple. If shops get the combination wrong, or don't make enough of a commitment to creating a festive atmosphere, they may do more harm than good to their sales.

The effect of a store's atmosphere on shopping habits was largely ignored until the early 1970s, when marketing guru Philip Kotler suggested that retailers should use scientific methods to test what encourages shoppers to buy.

"That may seem obvious to us today in a sensory-bombarded shopping culture, but it wasn't back then," says Eric Spangenberg, a marketing professor at Washington State University in Pullman.

Holiday sense

Now, shops try to appeal to all our senses, especially during the holidays. Throughout the Christmas shopping season, they bombard visitors with festive music, lighting, colours and smells.

But creating a holiday atmosphere still involves mostly guesswork, says Spangenberg. "Most companies don't scientifically control and explore these variables, they just follow their instincts," he says.

To test the influence of holiday-themed music and scents, Spangenberg and his colleagues asked 130 volunteers to look around a mock store, and rate how attractive they found the merchandise on a scale of 1 to 7.

As they viewed different products, the researchers played one of two different albums by pop musician Amy Grant. One included Christmas songs whereas the other had no particular theme. At the same time, the volunteers were exposed to either a background smell of evergreen trees and cinnamon, designed to be reminiscent of Christmas, or to no fragrance at all.

Two to tango

The Christmas music and scent together made no difference to the volunteers' preferences. They gave the merchandise an average score of 6.65 with the festive atmosphere, compared to 6.69 with no Christmas influence.

But if only one festive factor was used, the shoppers' ratings fell. With only the Christmas music, the merchandise scored on average 6.06, and with just the Christmas smell it scored only 5.69, Spangenberg and his fellow researchers report in the Journal of Business Research.

So why bother with holiday extras at all? "Around this time of year you need to," says Spangenberg, as customers expect the shops to be festive. But he warns store owners that if they are going for a Christmas theme, they need to provide an all-round atmosphere, as half measures could leave people confused. "You've got to have all the pieces in effect at once," he told

Muzak, a leading supplier of music to businesses around the world, has picked up on the power of combined smell and song. According to spokesman Sumter Cox, Muzak has recently begun working with ScentAir, a company that makes fragrances for use in shops.

But it's unclear how many retailers will be convinced by Spangenberg's work. For example, the creative minds behind the holiday decorations at the British chain store Marks & Spencer take their inspiration from foreign markets and landscapes, "not scientific equations", according to a spokeswoman.


  1. Spangenberg E., Grohmann B. & Sprott D. J. Bus. Res., doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2004.09.005(2004).


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