Making scents: How smell impacts your customer experience

29th Jul 2016

The other day, I walked into a coffee shop that smelled like a damp basement. It only took me a couple of minutes to decide that I didn’t really want coffee after all.

That same week, I was walking through an airport when I smelled the aroma of hot cinnamon rolls. Cinnabon was calling me. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I wanted one of their hot, gooey, calorie-laden treats. It’s a good thing I was in a hurry to catch my flight!

Smells can have a dramatic impact on customers – luring them in and tempting them to purchase, or driving them away. Because smells send signals directly to our brains, they can strongly influence customers’ subconscious behavior. Because of this, scent-based marketing is on the rise – with mixed results.

Subconscious factors like smell are important considerations when we conduct customer mirrors and behavioral journey mapping. When our consultants visit our clients’ locations as though they were a customer, smell is often one of the first things they notice.

Good smells – like the ones at Cinnabon – entice customers and keep them coming back.

Too much smell or the wrong smell can send customers running – as happened to me at the basement-smelling coffee shop.

But what does the “right” scent look or smell like?

Here are some observations:

It makes customers feel good. Researchers at Concordia University have found that some smells actually make people feel anxious. For example, a couple of years ago, clothing retailer Abercrombie had to scale back on the use of scents in its stores because customers felt claustrophobic in its crowded, dimly-lit shops infused with musky cologne. The Concordia researchers concluded that scents can help fight anxiety if they create a sense of openness in a crowded environment, or a sense of coziness in a spacious, open environment. Perhaps Abercrombie would do better with a fresh outdoorsy scent.

It is intentional. More often than not, accidental smells hurt your customers’ experience. We have seen businesses that have become so accustomed to an imperfect smell that they no longer sense it the way an outsider would. But when your coffee shop smells like a basement or your grocery store smells like a fish dock, your customers won’t want to come back. More businesses should be asking themselves what they want their customer experience to smell like.

It is consistent with your brand. Cinnabon is a master of this. They make cinnamon rolls and they have made the smell of fresh baked rolls an integral part of their brand identity. They put their ovens at the front of the store and do as much as they can to impart their signature scent without running afoul of shopping mall lease restrictions. But Cinnabon hasn’t always gotten it right: the “Pizzabon” created a disastrous conflict of scents and was quickly discontinued.

It is carefully managed. Abercrombie ran into trouble partly because its scents were overpowering. Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics sells natural, unpackaged and scented beauty and bath products in its shopping mall stores. They reportedly use ventilation systems to keep their smells from becoming overpowering. But according to an employee, they also make sure the smells don’t get too faint by periodically closing shop doors to let the aromas build up.

Should your customer experience incorporate a particular scent? I think it depends on what you’re selling and what kind of environment you have. What is crucial, however, is to make sure that you don’t have negative scents that drive customers away.

When was the last time a smell lured you in or sent you running for the door? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Find out how some other organizations successfully improved their Customer Experience in our latest ebook Unlocking the Hidden Customer Experience. LinkedIn followers can buy for $4.99 with promo code: Hidden50.


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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world's leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of five bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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