Retailers can push the boundaries of customer experience by engaging the senses, says Neil Gillis

We are predominantly visual animals. It is by far our strongest sense. But it is not our only sense. With a few exceptions, however, most retail businesses focus all their efforts on connecting with their customers purely through visual means.

The other four senses that have the opportunity to engage, fascinate and stimulate our customers are left largely untouched.

Starbucks has said that it will now be grinding fresh coffee beans every half-hour in its stores to produce the fresh coffee aroma that it believes is a vital part of its customer offer.

The use of aroma to drive customer behaviour was something that we experimented with a great deal in the health club industry. Of all our senses, the sense of smell is most closely connected with the limbic system within the brain that controls emotion and memory – both vital elements of any consumer purchasing process.

In our health clubs we used different aromas to drive the different behaviours we were seeking from our members. We used citrus scents to help stimulate activity and endurance in the gym, lavender or rosemary to help with relaxation in the spa or chill-out areas and various food scents to stimulate appetite in our restaurants.

Other industries are beginning to make progress in exploiting the non-visual senses to optimise the way in which their products interact with their customers. The car industry is making use of the sense of touch as they have realised that our visual sense is often overloaded when driving.

Because of the natural reflex characteristics associated with our sense of touch we often react more quickly to a tactile stimulus than a visual one. Cars are now being produced that send vibrations through your seat when you change lanes inadvertently. Clever, although possibly a little disturbing.

Car manufacturers are also experimenting with using the steering wheel to send information to the driver through pulses, with the frequency and intensity of the vibrations increasing with the perceived urgency of the message.

When I ran a pub business we made use of the sense of touch to try to drive alternative consumption patterns.

Hard floor surfaces generally encouraged “vertical” drinking, when customers stand around and chat, drink in hand. This is one of the most profitable uses of pub space but also one of the most difficult to manage. By contrast, we used soft floor surfaces where we wished to encourage consumers to drink sitting down or order food.  

The retail industry in this country is one of our most innovative, competitive and fast-moving sectors. So it can only be a matter of time before we see retailers making significant innovations in the way in which they exploit the other four senses to communicate and interact with their customers.

I think this will be one of the more exciting areas of development for retail over the next 20 years. Who knows – alongside the current job description of visual merch-andiser we may soon be employing olfactory merchandisers, aural merchandisers and even tactile merchandisers.

Neil Gillis is chief executive of Blacks Leisure