While many shoppers are availing themselves of Cyber Monday deals today, there's a healthy contingent who hoof it to the store to kick off their Christmas shopping -- assuming they didn't finish all of it on Black Friday. With many retailers counting on healthy holiday sales to get in the black this year, stores are employing all kinds of tricks to instill customers with the spirit of the season – including the strategic use of odors. The decorations in the store might smell like pine or cloves to you, but for shop owners they have the distinct aroma of cash.


Scent beckons to memory, emotions and hunger – the scent of popcorn and butter in a movie theater makes you want to eat popcorn. And while in the digital era customers increasingly are able to tune out the barrage of sights and sounds that retailers use to try and ensnare them, scent is something that's harder to ignore.


To date, studies suggest that the strategic use of scents can mean bigger sales. One of the important questions for retailers, though, is what kind of scent is useful for a particular store. The smell of freshly baked cookies may make people crave treats, but that's not much help in an electronics store.


"Most people are processing it at an unconscious level, but it is impacting them," Washington State University researcher Eric Spangenberg said in a statement Monday. "The important thing from the retailer's perspective and the marketer's perspective is that a pleasant scent isn't necessarily an effective scent."

Some generic scents may do the trick. A recent paper from Spangenberg and several WSU colleagues, in collaboration with a Swiss researcher from the University of St. Gallen, published in the Journal of Retailing, examined the effects of simple scents versus complicated scents. In their field tests, they examined how sales shifted when a relatively simple orange scent was diffused throughout a Swiss home decorations store compared to when a more complex orange-basil and green tea scent was used, or when there was no diffused scent at all. Receipts and questionnaires filled out by shoppers indicated that there was a bump in sales when the simple scent was sprayed.

The WSU researchers also tested the effects of the different scents by spraying them in the air while undergraduate college students worked to solve word problems. Spangenberg and his team found that the students solved more word problems in less time when the simple scent was sprayed. The scientists think that a simpler scent may just be easier to process than a more complex one.


“Complex scents may be just that — too complex, thereby disallowing fluent processing by shoppers and reducing the likelihood of beneficial responses,” the researchers wrote.


One 2011 paper in the Journal of Business Research found that the presence of vanilla scent raised shoppers' satisfaction levels and lifted their spirits, and that increased pleasure level corresponded with greater time and money spent in the store.

Two British researchers have sounded a note of caution on the merits of ambient scent research. In May 2011, University of Stirling's Christoph Teller and Charles Dennis from the University of Lincoln published a critical review of some papers exploring ambient scent and shopping behavior, especially those studies that used scents pumped throughout a large area, like a shopping mall.


“A shopping mall includes more atmospheric stimuli compared to a store, and thus the effective use of ambient scent turns out to be a quite complex task,” Teller and Dennis wrote in the Journal of Marketing Management.


But many stores aren't waiting for the lab results to come in, and have already jumped on the scent train. Sometimes a scent can be a brand in and of itself – think of the suffocating clouds of cologne that hit you in the face when you walk in the door at Abercrombie & Fitch, or the less obtrusive but distinct vanilla-rosemary-lemon combination at a Williams Sonoma outpost.


So, when shopping this holiday season, take care. If you are suddenly struck with the urge to buy gingerbread man-shaped candlesticks and a Santa tea set, it may not be because you're filled with the Christmas spirit, but because you sniffed up a strategically placed seasonal scent.