Ambient Smell and the Retail Environment: Relating Olfaction Research to Consumer Behavior*

Article excerpt

The focus of this article is the ability of smell to assist in the development and communication of retail brand image. We therefore present a number of propositions regarding ambient smell and the retail environment, including the potential for novel ambient aromas to act as a distinctive element in a retailer's marketing mix. To assist in creating a developmental discussion, we draw on aspects of olfaction research in disciplines other than marketing. However, the core of the piece is derived from the model developed by Gulas and Bloch (1995), as well as work focused on the study of other environmental stimuli within retail settings. Our aim is to provide testable extensions to this framework: creating specific points of departure for further research.

"I like the smell of that [shop], I like the way it serves me..."

after: Crowded House (1993)


A central concern for retailers is an understanding of the influence that their stores' physical environment has on their customers' perceptions and behavior. This is reflected in the interest and coverage given to the study of the retail physical environment by academics from a broad range of disciplines (e.g. Belk, 1975; Donovan & Rossiter, 1982; Bellizi, Crowley, & Hasty, 1983; Bitner, 1992; Baker, Parasuraman, & Grewal, 1994). There has also been consideration of the relationship between a general physical setting and behavior in the broader environmental psychology literature (e.g. Mehrabian and Russell, 1974): which has, in many instances, informed the more specific consideration of retail environments.

Work in this field has focused on a stimulus-organism-response (S[arrow right]O[arrow right]R) approach, which was adopted by Mehrabian & Russell (1974), who suggested that the outcome of the influence of various environmental stimuli was revealed in approach or avoidance behavior. Mehrabian and Russell (1974) also proposed that intervening between the environmental stimuli and approach or avoidance are three emotional states: pleasure, arousal and dominance (PAD). The combination of these determines whether or not a person wishes to remain in a particular environment-i.e., approach or avoid.

Retailers therefore have to establish mechanisms by which they arc able to ensure-or at least increase-the likelihood of approach behaviors being stimulated amongst their target market. In so doing, retailers are attempting not only to draw in target customers, but also to convert them into purchasers. Additionally, they are simultaneously creating an offer that will also lead to avoidance behavior in those that are not the intended audience. This means that retailers must make a careful and conscious use of the stimuli that are present in the physical environment.

The manipulation of such cues can be construed as an attempt at communicating a particular message to consumers (Davies & Ward, 2002), with the aim of achieving specific and immediate behavioral responses-stay, browse and purchase. Retailers may also seek to engender a delayed behavior-enjoy this store; come back and purchase again. Both responses are clearly of great potential value to retailers in both the short and long term. However, as with any form of communication, it is important that the intended audience decodes the intended message appropriately. This helps to highlight the importance of making such communication intelligible, and to understand what affects the perception and interpretation of the message by its recipient.

This type of communication-through the physical environment-can be considered a form of 'oral' communication (Kooijman, 2003). Here, "oral" is taken to mean "the whole of the unwritten form of communication" (Mostert, 1998, p. 9). It subsumes elements such as the spoken word, attitudes, gestures, smells, flavors and non-verbal messages. In trying to marshal the variety of environmental cues available to them in their sales methods, retailers are attempting to manipulate the 'emotionality of the customer bond' and are, in essence, trying ultimately to reach a condition of flow in the consumption experiences that they facilitate (Kooijman, 2003). …