Stores Find New Ways To Seduce You

The right smells, the right music, manipulating inventory levels, displaying certain colors: aided by tons of research on consumer psychology, stores now employ all sorts of wily techniques to wine and dine you before getting you in the backseat. (And yes, we meant for that sentence to go there.)

A popular trend these days is the subtle use of scents; according to Kimberly Palmer at US News & World Report, a university study “found that certain scents–Rose Maroc in men’s clothing stores and vanilla in women’s–increased shopping time, number of items purchased, and amount spent.” Want a real world example? Sony Style stores use a “sweetish scent with citrus bases and vanilla overtones” to make the store more appealing to female buyers, while many upscale hotels now employ scents to help create distinctive brands and increase customer satisfaction.

Somes stores – Zara and H&M are two examples – are “training” customers to stop looking for bargains by rapidly changing their inventory on a weekly basis, because shoppers are more likely to buy things they like immediately instead of waiting for sales if they’re worried that the item might disappear by next week. H&M’s spokesperson responds, “Prices are affordable, so it’s OK.”

If you think you’re immune to such techniques, a recent New York Times article on subconscious manipulation may change your mind:

New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.

The Games Stores Play [US News & World Report]
Who’s Minding the Mind? [New York Times]
Fitg? Coconut Sunscreen? Hotels Choose Their Scent [New York Times]
Accessoring the Air [New York Times]

(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Cowboys_fan says:

    Subconscious manipulation? How about common sense? If you smell food, you may likely get hungry. Sure the scent of vanilla may make someone feel better, or may remind me of an ex and make me cringe, it works both ways. If these people really think the scent of a store is more likely to convince me to purchase items, they are sooo wrong. If I think thats what they are doing, I may consciously buy less in SPITE! and if they change inventory weekly, I’m likely never to go back b/c what I want won’t be there. I hope it works out for you, but it won’t work on me.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Anyone heard that conspiracy theory about how the US government brought in all the Nazi scientists to work on the space program, that’s taken for granted, but many more Nazi scientists studying mind-control, mass propaganda, and other techniques were also granted amnesty…and a job by the government.

  3. nctrnlboy says:

    My obsessive OCD-like cheapness is no match for scents of rose maroc or any other manipulation by stores.

  4. Intangible_360 says:

    What about those of us with scent allergies? I literally will not/cannot shop in stores like this. I guess as long as they attract enough people to make-up for my lack of business, they could care less?

  5. ColdNorth says:

    The fact is, companies do this because it DOES work. Maybe not on people like Cowboys_Fan or other careful consumers, but the vast hordes of shoppers are really not on their guard when they hit the stores.

    The biggest correlation between sales and all these retail fads seem to around the amount of time a consumer spends browsing. So, it is exactly because vanilla appeals to women (like that cringeworthy ex girlfriend) and not to men that these places use it. The last thing they want is some bored boyfriend or husband hanging around, reminding the women to go somewhere else. Much better to drive the men away so as to not be a distraction.

    Of course it works both ways. There are male-centered techniques, too. The point is that retailers will do whatever they can to keep a person in a store, walking the aisles and browsing. Time = Extra Purchases.

  6. Buran says:

    @thbarnes: Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised. The military HAS tested psychic abilities and the like before, and there WAS a deliberate effort to find as many scientists as possible and bring them to the US.

    Germany really did advance technology quite a bit in the 1940s and that does get a bad rap unfairly — everyone concentrates on the bad things that happened which certainly isn’t the fault of the scientists — just the fault of the upper ranks of government. I really don’t think ordinary people really were aware of what was going on — they got fed lots of propaganda when it wasn’t kept totally secret.

    I work in a lab that works with something that was originally developed in 1940s Germany — the electron microscope. It wasn’t marketed anywhere until the 1950s because the German government during the war saw no use for that neat new toy developed by Siemens.

    To this day we still keep an old nonfunctional Siemens ’50s scope in the lab as a sort of history piece.

  7. Buran says:

    I really think I’m immune to this crap but probably because I am of the type that doesn’t go around buying unnecesary stuff, is not a shopaholic, does my own research for what I need, and just goes and gets it. I’m not much of a browser.

    This sort of thing works on people who have even a slight tendency to really browse.

    And I’m female. And what kind of store do I like to poke in for fun? Electronics.

    Eat THAT, marketers.

  8. nctrnlboy says:


    lol correction.. reverse that! Maybe I am dislexic too!

  9. Opoponax says:

    The best way to circumvent things like this is to avoid impulse buys and shopping for fun. It won’t matter how often H&M rotates their stock if you only ever go there to buy specific items that you actually need. The problems crop up when you get bored, stop in somewhere, and get seduced into buying crap you don’t need. Strategies like smells, merchandising, etc. can only work on you if you go into the store in the first place.

    Though I have to say, the smells work. Maybe not so much with the examples listed, but I know I always convince myself to splurge at Williams Sonoma when they’re doing a baking demo that smells yummy.

  10. G-Dog says:

    I haven’t made an ‘impulse’ purchase yet this year. I only buy what I need, when I need it, wherever I can find it the cheapest.

    My wife on the other hand..

  11. Mom2Talavera says:

    I’m with you. I go to the mall like twice a year and do alot of my shopping on-line. I love H&M..even with their manipulative “tricks” it doesn’t affect me.

    In many stores I’ve noticed light and cool areas . Various scents(candy,cane,pine,wood burning fire,gingerbread..ect). Certain area’s lighted differently than the rest of the store. Certain color schemes arouse different emotions…Music..ect

    /some of us pay our own bills and don’t have the luxury of being “retarded” when it comes to shopping. Trust me when you pay the bills yourself without mommy & Daddy you’ll make damn sure these “tricks” don’t work on you!

  12. etinterrapax says:

    If this is to work on me, they have to find a way to make sure it doesn’t make the store crowded, because that’s my Achilles heel. If the place is busy, I’ll either leave in a hurry with only what I need, or leave without buying anything. So if their goal is a store filled with browsers, count me out.

  13. Bloberry says:

    I absolutely hate stores with vivid scents. Unless it’s a perfume counter, there’s really no reason for a lingering scent. I walked past a Hollister store yesterday in the mall and darned near passed out from the blast of scent coming from the store. I’d hate to think of what it would have been like to actually walk into the place. I never will. Nor will I go into any other stores which blast their “fragrance” into the mall. Yuck!

  14. hoo_foot says:

    I’ve stopped going to my local Macy’s because the scent formula that they pump into the air gives me nasty sinus headaches.

    …not that never going into a Macy’s again is much of a loss.

  15. SaraAB87 says:

    If a store is overpriced then there is nothing they can do to get me to purchase their products, if they hassle me about it I would be likely to tell them in their face that the store is overpriced. Scented stores are nasty too, I don’t want my clothes to smell like the store they came from thank you.

    I save all my impluse buying of all sorts for the clearance rack, and I make sure I will only buy things that I will use. I have no problem impluse buying when there is a good clearance with very cheap items. If your an overpriced store or I feel your store is overpriced then I will be hitting the door soon and there is nothing you will be able to do to bring me back, except for lowering the prices or having an outrageous clearance. I haven’t had to buy a pair of jeans in 2 years since I am still wearing through a bunch of jeans I bought for 10$ a pair. Hoarding is good when you know you will use the clothing.

    If I can find the item I want online cheaper then to the online stores I go. 90% of my electronics shopping is done online, because has free shipping, no tax and lower prices than retail stores.

  16. acambras says:


    Even worse are the perfume sample cards that Macy’s encloses with their charge-card statements…

    I guess what I hate about this is the idea of being “targeted” or “marketed to,” is that those are euphemisms for being “manipulated.”

  17. Dickdogfood says:

    Before it died, my local Blockbuster used to aerate an overpowering cinnamon scent throughout the premises and made its cashiers mumble “have a sweet day” at the end of every rental.

    Frankly, I think the use of scents constitutes yet another pseudoscientific selling strategy that makes marketers feel good about themselves and give consumers a pleasant charge now and then, and that’s about it.

  18. lizzybee says:

    @hoo_foot: Ugh– the men’s stores are the worst! When my DH drags me in periodically to look for workshirts, the stench from the men’s cologne department pervades the store, and makes me ill. I can stomach it for about 20 minutes (like his shopping is **ever** over that quickly) before I’m ready to ralph. And by then, I have a huge headache just to add to my fun. Macy’s Men is pure evil!

  19. Trojan69 says:

    The absolute worst odor-related development I’ve experienced is when one of those seasonal kiosk vendors was selling a food slicer/dicer/processor. That SOB was chopping up a storm, including garlic and onions. His kiosk was centrally located within the mall and stank up a huge portion of the mall.

    I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there. When I complained to the weasels, er, consumer representatives of the mall, they denied that they had received many complaints. So, even though my nose was offended as all get out, I decided to hang and see if any others would complain. The five people who immediately followed me at that counter complained about that friggin kiosk!

    I returned to the weasels and called them liars (felt great!) and reiterated my demand that nothing like this ever be allowed in the mall again. Amazingly enough, even though there weren’t many complaints against that vendor (haha), he hasn’t returned.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that retail stinks. Am I right?

  20. AbstractConcept says:

    Starbucks secretly uses the scent of coffee to lure customers in. Just thought I’d throw that fact in there. Actually they do use colors and lighting, like most stores…

    Mcdonalds uses uncomfortable seats for the purpose of getting customers out of the store faster.. They need to make room after all.. Forget where I read that, it may have been from this site.

  21. smallestmills says:

    The company I work for uses the word “train” as in “We train customers when to shop.” It works. We know when we drop ads, they will come in and buy what’s in the ad. Sales are down? We buy a page in a local paper, even a quarter page works. If we’re sitting on an item you have too much stock of, stick it on an endcap, people will buy anything if it’s on an endcap. We got sick of sitting on so much merchandise after Xmas, especially because of the markdowns we have to take, so we trained our customers to shop before Xmas. Last year, we had no seasonal merchandise left in the store on Christmas Eve.

  22. cashba says:

    I agree with DickDogFood: I don’t know if this is really Games Companies Play, but rather Games Marketers Play. In the original article, the reps for ScentAir can’t put a number on increase purchasing, and then say it would be impossible to tell. Knowing what happens after death, impossible. Knowing how buying habits are affected by a marketing scheme, not impossible. (check the registers) It sounds as if ScentAir knows itself that scenting a store won’t make consumers mindless buying-zombies.

  23. Usermanual says:

    If the companies are looking to train consumers to purchase items impulsively, simply because they are here today and may not be here tomorrow, doesn’t it follow that the trend they are hoping to capitalize on will also be gone tomorrow?

    It seems more logical that stores would offer the “next hot thing” at full price, followed by a sale to ensure in consumer’s minds that their clothes are more than just trendy indulgences. This technique would also gather up all the “late bloomers” who don’t follow trends, but have been looking to wear what the trendsetters have been wearing and are now tired of.

  24. rosiepie says:

    I live in the FL panhandle and our Dillards smells like pee. I wonder what message they’re trying to send? You’d think with multiple hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 would provide, say, an opportunity to clean up the store and de-funk it, but nooo…I can’t bring myself to shop in a store that smells like urine if they can’t bring themselves to buy Febreeze. So i shop in Alabama.

  25. bbbici says:

    Cinnabon throws cinnamon into their ovens to continually pump out a seductive aroma.

    ‘Hip’ clothing stores pump out the techno music to put you in a frenzied state.

    Being a cyclist i love the fresh rubber smell of a store full of new bikes, but i don’t think stores consciously deploy rubber smell.

  26. Echodork says:

    There are two tenets of subconscious manipulation:

    1) It works.
    2) Everyone believes they are immune to subconscious manipulation. Don’t worry though, it works on them too.

    It’s just a fact of retail – you ARE being manipulated in every store you go in. When I managed a retail store (a Gamestop), I mapped out the store’s “traffic zones” and “invisible” zones. I took a small whiteboard and wrote a trivia question on it, and I displayed it upside down in various locations throughout the store. Then I recorded the number of people who either answered the question or stopped to tell me that the sign was upside down. With this method, we figured out which display locations got the most “eye traffic” and where our “invisible zones” were.

    Of course, the high-traffic zones were filled with Game Informer and pre-order advertising. In essence, we knew exactly where you were going to look in the store, and we made sure that we occupied that space with exactly what we wanted you to read.

    Those who think they’re immune to subconscious manipulation… when you go into a Gamestop, do you stare at the ceiling out of spite? :)

    Or does your eye flip to the area just above the cashier’s right shoulder, right to the giant pre-order advertisement that sits there?

    Don’t answer, I already know :)

  27. mermaidshoes says:

    @bloberry/re:hollister: oh man, i went into ruehl one time (first & last time i’ll make THAT mistake), and i swear that they had an employee whose sole job was to spray their cologne EVERYWHERE in the store. he was seriously spraying it in every single little nook and cranny, plus directly ON the majority of the clothes for sale. i was like, uhh, what if i just want to buy your clothing, not the accompanying noxious scent? yikes. my friend was really into the store for some reason and i seriously had to step outside to wait for her slow ass because i couldn’t take the overpowering scentification. ugh.