Under the Hood

Retail Therapy: How The Smell Of Cinnamon Seduces Us Into Spending Money To Feel Better

shopping and scents
Smells have power over us not only in daily life but also when we're shopping; a new study pinpoints certain smells that influence our decision to buy things. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Certain smells can have an impact on what and how much you buy, according to a new study. Unbeknownst to shoppers, the smell of cinnamon can spur them into buying more “prestigious items,” the researchers discovered.

In the study, led by authors at Stevens Institute of Technology, City University of New York, and Temple University, the researchers sought to analyze how certain smells impacted consumers’ “spatial perceptions” in retail stores — and how this in turn affected their feelings of power and shopping behaviors. They found that the temperature of smells — either creating a sensation of warmth (like cinnamon) or coolness (like lavender) — had an effect on how consumers viewed the space around them, which in turn influenced whether they felt powerful or powerless.

“People smelling warm fragrances such as cinnamon feel that the room they are in is more crowded, and feel less powerful as a result,” the authors write. “This can lead them to compensate by buying items they feel are more prestigious.”

This certainly seems like a lot of dots to connect, but it might have something to do with how shopping activates certain parts of the brain and makes us feel good: also known as retail therapy. Perhaps buying something after feeling crowded or powerless is an attempt to boost dopamine levels, activate the pleasure wires in our brain, and feel better about ourselves.

In the study, the amount of people in the room and the temperature of the room didn’t change at all, but the participants who smelled cinnamon felt it was warmer and more crowded compared to those that didn’t. “Specifically, the authors demonstrate that in a warm- (vs. cool-) scented and thus perceptually more (vs. less) socially dense environment, people experience a greater (vs. lesser) need for power, which manifests in increased preference for and purchase of premium products and brands,” the authors write. “This research extends knowledge on store atmospherics and customer experience management through the effects of ambient scent on spatial perceptions and builds on recent research on power in choice contexts.”

The sense of smell is quite powerful; it can recall memories far more strongly than looking at pictures or even hearing an old song from a faraway time. And though some retail companies have already used the power of scent to manipulate their customers — infusing stores with the pleasant smells of chocolate and bakery to spur more purchases — the authors of the most recent study believe that it’s “the first to show how fragrance in the environment can affect how we feel about the space surrounding us, and how that in turn can drive customers to choose prestigious products," they wrote. “We show that retailers can easily manipulate social density perceptions with a subtle and relatively inexpensive application of ambient scenting in the store environment.”

Source: Madzharov A, Block L, Morrin M. “The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior.” Journal of Marketing, 2015.

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