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Richard Morin

Dollars and Scents

By Richard Morin
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page B05

What do profits smell like?

Like oranges with a hint of lemon, say three business professors who studied how various scents affected buying patterns.

Under certain conditions, a citrus smell seemed to magically open the pocketbooks of shoppers and increase their desire to spend, according to Jean-Charles Chebat of the HEC Montreal graduate school of business, Richard Michon of Ryerson University in Toronto and L.W. Turley of Western Kentucky University. Their findings appear in the latest issue of the Journal of Business Research.

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Previous Columns
E-mail Rich Morin at morinr@washpost.com.

But retailers with a nose for sales should not order industrial-size vaporizers and fill them with orange scent just yet. The researchers cautioned that the citrus smell provoked additional spending only if stores were moderately busy. If they were too crowded or too empty, the power of citrus disappeared. "Crowds have their own smells," Chebat said in an e-mail. "Citrus can counterbalance the effects of such smells to a certain extent. However, it has its limitations. As for the least crowded environments, citrus may be too arousing."

Researchers have known for years that external stimuli can subconsciously affect how eager we are to buy, and our emotions can be enhanced or suppressed by our surroundings. The impact of background music on shoppers is well documented: Loud rock music, for example, seems to encourage quick decisions and impulse buys while softer sounds keep people in the store longer. Lighting, too, can affect buyers' moods by making them feel better -- or worse -- about the shopping environment.

But until now, few people have studied how smell influences shoppers, Michon said. One reason is that retailers and researchers agree that the effect of an ambient odor is powerful but difficult to predict. In fact, psychologists believe that smell is the most powerful of the five senses in provoking both strongly positive and negative emotional reactions.

Another reason: It's so hard to test how smell impacts shopping decisions because it's hard to replicate real buying conditions in a laboratory. So these researchers took the experiment out of the lab and into the mall, conducting a novel real-life test of their theories at a shopping center near Montreal.

They set up a series of six scent stations around the mall. The stations remained in place for three weeks. Each week each station would diffuse one of two scents around the mall, taking care to make the odor just "below the threshold of awareness," Chebat said. The citrus scent -- a mix of orange, lemon and mandarin -- was dispersed the first week, lavender the second, while data was collected under normal conditions on a third week to provide a baseline for comparison. Several hundred shoppers were asked to answer a questionnaire that helped the researchers evaluate perceptions of products, the mood of the shoppers, the overall impressions of the mall and the amount of merchandise purchased under different scent conditions.

They found that shoppers who sniffed the citrus scent during the first week were more likely to view the mall as livelier, more pleasant and more stimulating (the lavender bouquet produced a marginally positive reaction). These citrus-enhanced feelings were money in the bank for the retailers: Under the heady influence of the aroma, each shopper spent about $20 U.S. more per outing, the research team reported.

Where Does The Time Go?

For years, researchers have puzzled over two conflicting findings about how Americans spend their time.

On the one hand, a growing majority of American workers say there simply aren't enough hours in the day to do everything they need to do, a finding that has provoked much hand-wringing and a warning six years ago by then-Vice President Al Gore that America faces a "time deficit in family life."

On the other hand, employment records have shown that the number of hours the average worker puts in on the job has not changed in decades. That led some observers to conclude that people aren't working longer, they're merely playing harder and have grown anxious because they can't find the time to do all the fun things they'd like to do. Poor dears!

Well, that's wrong, argue two sociologists who say they've solved the time-deficit paradox. It is true that employed men and women aren't spending any more time on the job. On average, working men spend about 43 hours a week on the job while working women spend 37 hours -- virtually unchanged since 1970, reported Kathleen Gerson of New York University and Jerry A. Jacobs of the University of Pennsylvania in a recent issue of the journal Contexts, published by the American Sociological Association.

But that's not the whole story, the two sociologists claim. They also found that there is a greater percentage of women, particularly wives, in the work force now than in the past. These working women aren't toiling any longer than employed women in the 1970s -- but there are more of them and this has boosted the total amount of time that couples spend working outside the home.

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