Maybe Abercrombie Was Partly Right About Using So Much Smell in Its Stores

By
Photo: Image Source/Getty Images/Image Source

Former mall rats of the internet, you probably know exactly what I mean when I mention the Abercrombie scent. For the uninitiated: Abercrombie staked its territory in the mall corridor like a dog peeing around a fire hydrant. The cologne smell was so pungent you could catch a whiff from a couple stores away; inside, it was overpowering, new gusts of smell hitting your face each time you picked up a T-shirt. (Cologne was sprayed on the clothes, in the air around the clothes, even in the air conditioner.)

I say was, past tense, because Abercrombie has apparently toned down the cologne since the early ‘00s: In 2013, the company announced that it would be spraying 25 percent less of the stuff. Which is unquestionably good news, but also, a little bit, a sad story about a mishandled opportunity: done right, smell really can change for the better the way you feel about a store.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Retailing, researchers reviewed 66 studies examining how store scent, color, and music influenced people’s perceptions of their time spent shopping. Specifically, the paper focused on three elements: arousal, or how stimulated a shopper feels; pleasure, or how much they enjoy themselves in the moment; and satisfaction with the overall shopping experience — which is different from pleasure, they wrote, in that the latter focuses on your own internal state (“I’m experiencing pleasant feelings”) while the former is a more outward-facing judgment (“Shopping in this store is a positive experience”).

Only scent, they found, had a significant impact on all three — which makes sense, considering the tight links between what you smell and how you feel. The olfactory bulb, which processes scent, is connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, two parts of the brain that deal with emotion and memory.

To companies, this information is nothing new. Plenty of stores and hotels have long made use of “olfactive branding,” incorporating distinctive scents into their brand to help customers build an emotional connection to it; even some high-end apartment buildings are getting in on the action. For the people doing the shopping, though, it’s an interesting thing to keep in mind: The way you feel about a store is about much more than what you see on the shelves. (And to the brave souls who launched a protest against Abercrombie’s aggressive spraying in 2010: Thank you for your service.)