Sensory marketing is a bold new frontier for retailers looking to stand out from the crowd, but does it make a material difference?

What might make a visit to a supermarket more enjoyable?

“If you’ve designed a series of nice visuals for a store, wouldn’t it be nice to engage the other senses as well?”

Russ Jones, Condiment Junkie

Could it be a shopping trolley that doesn’t wobble or veer off in unwanted directions?

Might it be food categories that aren’t split up across the store? Or could it be a little added drama in the form of some appealing visual merchandising?

All those would certainly improve the in-store experience and all are tangible. But is there something else that might make things better?

Russ Jones, co-founder of Brixton-based sensory branding and design agency Condiment Junkie, believes so: “If you’ve designed a series of nice visuals [for a store] wouldn’t it be nice to engage the other senses as well?”

Jones says that “few retailers are good at doing this”, adding that “sensory marketing” is still seen as “very new”.

Yet Condiment Junkie has been up and running for a little over six years and, in the last three, Jones says there has been a steady stream of retail clients, all anxious to look at new ways of making their products and stores more appealing.

Added dimension

Sensory marketing turns out to be a very broad domain.

Given the heavy emphasis placed by retailers on visual stimuli, touch, taste and smell remain fields to be experimented with and possibly a relatively inexpensive means of adding a further dimension to visiting a shop.

Tesco Extra Watford has devoted floor space to concessions Harris + Hoole and Euphorium Bakery

Euphorium bakery

Supermarkets frequently waft the smell of freshly baked bread throughout their premises in order to relax shoppers

It is of course already in place, in a number of contexts. Most of the major supermarkets have long piped pleasant smells throughout their premises as shoppers make their way along the aisles.

Visiting a large grocer frequently involves smells generated in the bakery being wafted around a selected area in order to create a feeling both of authenticity and well-being.

So by combining the visual element that forms part of any retail interior with touch, taste and sound experiences, is it simply a case of job done?

‘Experience-based’ shops

Possibly, but probably not, according to Professor Charles Spence, who holds the chair of experimental psychology at Oxford University.

“There’s a real danger that people go in for an experience and leave without actually buying anything”

Professor Charles Spence, Oxford University

Talking of “experience-based” shop environments, he says: “There’s a real danger that people go in for an experience and leave without actually buying anything.”

There are in fact any number of stores at which this accusation might be levelled.

The Toys R Us flagship on New York’s Times Square is perhaps a case in point. Tourists flocked to visit the shop for the in-store experience it offered, including music, smell and a functional ferris wheel.

But a combination of high rents, low margins and shoppers who were engaged for the wrong reasons, has led to its disappearance – the store closed shortly after Christmas.

toysrus in store 2

toysrus in store 2

The recently closed Toys R Us flagship in New York had a strong focus on in-store experience, including a functioning ferris wheel

Spence says that what matters is “congruence” between the various sensory constituents that may be put into a store and when that is missing, things can go awry.

Citing toiletries retailer Lush as an example of what can be done with smell he says: “It certainly divides opinion, but it is clearly very successful. Lush is not for everybody, but there are enough shoppers who like it to make it work.”

In Lush, the bundling of smell, sound and sight is felicitous, but striking the right balance can be precarious.

Spence gives the example of one clothing store in which fragrance was tried alongside the visual merchandising and revenues improved. Yet when music was added to the mix, sales declined – clearly, there is a fine line to be trod when creating a retail empire of the senses.

Different demographics

Given the potential difficulties therefore, is it worth retailers’ while to head off into this largely uncharted marketing territory?

Lush Oxford Street

Lush Oxford Street

Lush Oxford Street

The answer may be that it depends on who you are. Aleksandra Szymanska, visual trends analyst at The Future Laboratory, says sensory marketing relies, to some extent, on age and income: “Spending power is important. The more you earn, the more likely you are to be influenced by touch and smell when you go to the shops.”

She adds that millennials are also more likely to be influenced by additional sensory stimuli in store, while baby-boomers may not be.

If retailers are interested in adding smell and touch to the interior mix, as well as the effect of the individual elements, the demographics associated with a store or retail brand have to be examined.

“Spending power is important. The more you earn, the more likely you are to be influenced by touch and smell when you go to the shops”

Aleksandra Szymanska, The Future Laboratory

There is also the mildly counter-intuitive phenomenon that stimulating a specific sense may have an effect on a seemingly unrelated sense.

Spence says that a goat’s cheese cheesecake can be made to taste bitter or sweet according to the type of music that is played when a tasting is carried out.

A ‘sonic signature’ can have unexpected results and it’s just another thing to be mindful of when considering how sensory marketing might be used in a store.

But is the risk worth the pay off?

Enticing shoppers

Jones says that one of his favourite retailers as far as sensory marketing is concerned is Pets At Home: “They play the sound of birdsong in their store. It’s simple and relates to the offer and makes you feel good.”



Pets at Home plays the sound of birdsong in its stores

It also has the benefit of being low-cost to execute and can readily be put into all stores, rather than just a few flagships.

Jones says that although most sensory marketing is “100% grounded in science” for retailers the reality is “less about understanding the science and more about doing things intuitively”.

He cautions however that anything that is done has to be as “genuine’ as possible”.

All of which makes this an area that sounds worthy of investigation – first mover advantage waits for those who jump on the appropriate sonic, gustatory or olfactory bandwagon.

“Retailers are very slowly changing their approach. You can spend a lot of money for some nice layered lighting, whereas a signature scent doesn’t cost much at all”

Professor Charles Spence, Oxford University

There are a lot of caveats however and retailers need to tread lightly when it comes to opting for a specific course of action.

Spence sums up the current state of play: “Retailers are slowly, very slowly, changing their approach. You can spend an awful lot of money for some nice layered lighting, whereas a signature scent doesn’t cost much at all.”

For Spence, the Holy Grail is to put together a sufficiently enticing interior that will make “people willing to pay to come into your store.”

That outcome does seem a long way off on current reckoning, but sensory marketing of whatever form does appear to offer new ways for retailers to separate themselves from the herd.

Sensory marketing

What is it? Sight, sound, touch, smell and taste in any combination

Does it work? It is dependent on context and the shoppers who are targeted

Initial cost Generally lower than visual stimuli

Why do it? It offers a real point of difference

What are the pitfalls? Get it wrong and you may actually turn shoppers away