November 30, 2012

Beware The Smell Of Christmas

I am a Christmas hardass.

I flat refuse to put up a single decoration, send a single card, or break out a single Christmas tune until Thanksgiving is over and done.  The only concession I make is if I’m hand making gifts, then I have to get started early.

I don’t wander down early Christmas aisles at the stores, they annoy the Silent Night out of me.  It’s not that I’m terribly religious and think the holiday should only be about the birth of Jesus, ask anyone who knows me, I’m not.  I just think that commercialization has taken over, greed has taken over a holiday that to me has always been about family and kindness and warm, fuzzy feelings.

So, imagine my disdain when I read a recent news blurb about commercializing the SMELL of Christmas.

We have known for a long time that smells are linked to emotions and memories.  Realtors who want you to feel “at home” in a new house will bake cookies, Cooks who want you to be “hungry” will sauté onions, and the smell of hog meat roasting over an open fire takes me back to Christmas every time.

Hey!  You try feeding fifty hungry Cajuns at Christmas!  Some paltry turkey and dressing just won’t do it.  Don’t laugh.

We use aromatherapy to soothe headaches and stress and to promote health.  So why this surprises me so much, I’m not sure.  But I am sure I don’t like it.

A recent study in the Journal of Retailing by a group of scientists at Washington State University describes a series of experiments conducted to find the right scent designed to get you buying at Christmas.

Eric Spangenberg, a pioneer in the field and dean of the Washington State University College of Business, and his colleagues exposed hundreds of Swiss shoppers to both simple and complex scents.  They then used in-store interviews and cash register receipts to figure out which ones boosted sales.  They found that simple scents were more effective to get you spending money.

Comparing the human brain “on shopping” to a computer, they say that simple scents are more easily processed, leaving the human brain free to focus on shopping.  Scents that are more complex clog up the “bandwidth,” making it more difficult to perform cognitive tasks effectively.

Spangenberg teamed up with Andreas Herrmann at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen, among others, to develop two scents: a simple orange scent and a more complicated orange-basil blended with green tea.

Well I can see part of the problem right there.  Basil and green tea?  Ewww.  But I digress.

For about 18 weekdays, they watched over 400 customers in a home decorations store.  They subjected the shoppers to the simple scent, the complex scent and, for a control group, no scent at all.

A group of about 100 people who shopped in the simple scent spent, on average, 20 percent more money than the other two groups.

Meanwhile, back on  the WSU campus, the research team had undergrads trying to solve word problems under the same scent conditions.  Participants who were subjected to the simple scent solved more problems in less time than either the complex scent group or the no scent group.  This leads the team to claim that the simple scent contributes to “processing fluency.”

But don’t be fooled, Dear Reader, this is not about cognitive processing, this is about retail sales.  This is about selling even your smell memories of Christmas to make another buck.

Spangenberg says the research underscores the need to understand how scents affect customers.

“Most people are processing it at an unconscious level, but it is impacting them,” says Spangenberg. “The important thing from the retailer’s perspective and the marketer’s perspective is that a pleasant scent isn’t necessarily an effective scent.”

So beware the smell of Christmas at  your local stores, it’s just another marketing tool.

Image Credit: Madlen / Shutterstock

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