Smell that? Scents are a key part of a store’s identity, even in Covid

Retailers dispense scent in a way that may not even consciously register with shoppers, but which studies have suggested cause them to stay in stores longer—and buy more.
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Francis Scialabba

8 min read

So many things stink about the pandemic, and one of them—thanks to more people in one household working, schooling, cooking, Pelotoning, adopting pets, and showering less—is that it really does stink.

  • 67% of consumers report experiencing “more malodor” than before Covid.
  • Air freshener sales rose 10% in 2021 compared with 2019, while candle sales were up nearly 30% in the same period, according to IRI data.

So, sales-wise, the pandemic has been smelling like Linen & Sky to Febreze and the rest of the home air freshener category. But for their commercial counterparts, it’s been a different story.

“Has it impacted sales?” asked Roger Bensinger, EVP of Prolitec, a company that provides scents and scent-circulating devices to retailers, in an interview with Retail Brew. “Absolutely.”

  • Many of Prolitec’s 180,000+ customers—like Skechers, L’Occitane, and Haagen-Dazs, to name a few—operate internationally, including in countries that locked down more dramatically than the US, like China and Australia.

But that was then. A rebound is now. Bensinger expects to return to pre-Covid level revenues “in the near future” (but he declined to provide specific sales data). And companies like Prolitec think they can be part of retail’s rebound, too, when it comes to getting more shoppers to return to stores. Because if the enormous growth of scent companies suggests anything, it’s that shoppers can be led by the nose.

Something in the air

The commercial-scenting industry grew from about $300 million worldwide in 2014 to more than $800 million today, estimates Caroline Fabrigas, the CEO of Scent Marketing Inc. (Pinpointing an exact figure is tough, she said, because privately held companies like Aroma360, ScentAir, and Air-Scent International dominate the industry.)

One of the best-known examples of a scented retail environment is Abercrombie & Fitch.

In 2002, the chain introduced Fierce, its soon-to-be ubiquitous men’s fragrance, and to promote it, it had employees walk around the store spritzing from sample bottles. Come 2008, the retailer upped the ante. It hired Prolitec, which began diffusing the bestselling scent from devices in the ceiling, and still does today. (Brings back memories of Jason, the captain of the lacrosse team, doesn’t it?)

  • Prolitec told us it charges businesses a flat monthly service fee to scent them, controlling all the equipment remotely.
  • Abercrombie estimated that it spent more than $3 million on the scent devices in 2008 and 2009.

The smell of money: Bensinger calls approaches like Abercrombie’s “universal sampling,” meaning in essence (literally) that everyone is being given a sample of the fragrance in the hope that they’ll purchase it. But the execution is usually more nuanced.

Stores dispense scent in a way that may not consciously register with shoppers, but which studies have suggested causes them to stay in stores longer—and buy more.

One study in 2019 found that shoppers in stores with a pleasant scent spent 3% more on average than those who shopped in a store with no scent.

  • In another, shoppers in a scented store perceived they’d spent less time there than they had. And the inverse: Shoppers in the same store—but not scented—perceived they’d been there longer.
  • A pleasant smell in a store increased the likelihood that customers would return, another study found.

Appeals to the sense of smell are arguably more important than appeals to sight, explained Martin Lindstrom, the branding guru whose book, Brand Sense: Sensory Secrets Behind the Stuff We Buy, urges companies to market to all five senses.

Smell has a strong link to memory and emotion, Lindstrom told us. And he noted that shoppers often don’t even notice when they’re in a scented environment.

  • “It talks to you at a subconscious level,” Lindstrom said. “And when you’re not aware of things, you’re much more susceptible...because you feel it rather than, ‘I was told to think in a certain way.’”

Still, it’s taken some convincing to get retailers on board. When Spence Levy, president of Air Esscentials, another commercial-scenting company, got his start in the mid-2000s, he visited stores in Miami Beach to pitch them—to some pushback.

“Many people, in the beginning, were very hesitant,” Levy said.“‘Why would I want to spend money on that?’”

So, he offered stores a free trial of his machines and would come back a week later. “They were like, ‘Wow, people stayed longer,’” Levy said. They “ran their own studies and told us that...people...purchased more, they came back more often.”

Today, Levy said that retail accounts for about 35% of Air Esscentials revenues (but didn’t share specific figures), and it lists US Polo Assn., Dunhill, Versace, and Modani among its customers.

  • Its machines these days sell for $64 to $620 (not generally including scent).

A scent of one’s own

Scent companies offer a wide selection, often with common notes like grapefruit and vanilla that are reputed to lift moods. But brands increasingly are hiring fragrance developers for custom scents.

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When The North Face unveiled its new interactive store in Soho in 2019, for example, it also introduced its new retail scent, Half Dome, formulated to evoke the smell of the outdoors, specifically Yosemite National Park (which is known for fragrant pines and cedars.)

The North Face scent, in contrast to a store scent like Abercrombie’s that coincides with and promotes a fragrance, is “actually a branding statement,” said Fabrigas, of Scent Marketing Inc. The store is “bringing alive all those values of The North Face and enhancing the experience of that brand and the products that you're interacting with,” she explained.

  • While Scent Marketing did not formulate Half Dome, its devices circulate it in several of The North Face’s retail locations, including Soho.

“Brands have a visual identity...a logo,” Lindstrom said, adding that they also should have “a signature smell.”

Along with developing their own scent for their stores, Lindstrom suggested that retailers should infuse scent into packaging for online orders. The reason, Lindstrom said, is that when you have a unique experience in a store while smelling a unique scent, the two become linked. So when you subsequently order something from the retailer online, “you smell that box when it’s opened [and] you immediately feel that warmth which you had when you went to that amazing store.”

  • But, but, but: Lindstrom knows of no brands that had actually tried this.

Freshening up: Along with producing good smells, ambient scent companies are, of course, also hired by retailers to address unpleasant ones.

Petco has been working with Prolitec for several years to scent what Bensinger referred to as their “warm mammal” section, where shoppers buy small pets like guinea pigs, hamsters, and ferrets, whose cages sometimes do not smell as irresistible as their inhabitants look.

Prolitec now circulates a scent called Green Cedar, “which creates kind of a natural, outdoors, woodsy environment for that area,” Bensinger said. He added that it ends up wafting to other sections of the store, and is effectively as much of a positive scent experience for shoppers as it is something that counteracts occasional odor.

The other Covid-era impact

Perhaps because many shoppers are wearing masks, some retailers are now amping up how much scent they pump into stores to get through them. About 10% of Air Esscentials’ 10,000+ commercial customers are buying more scent, Levy said.

If before the pandemic, a store bought four bottles of fragrance a year, “right now they’re buying six or seven bottles of fragrance,” Levy said. “Sales are through the roof.”

Another effect of the pandemic: more interest in scents that evoke cleanliness. After all, as consumers may be reluctant to return to stores, one way for retailers to communicate safety and cleanliness may be for the stores to smell that way.

In late 2020, Prolitec debuted a line it promoted as “The Scents of Clean,” with offerings like Mint & Eucalyptus, Citrus & Sage, and Linen & Lemon. He said among the three lines it has introduced during the pandemic, it is selling the best. Shoppers “need to walk into the space and have a sense that this space is clean and properly maintained,” Bensinger said.

  • The retail restroom segment, a perennial winner for scent companies (duh), has also grown recently, according to Bensinger. “Restroom hygiene has always been important, but it’s especially important during Covid.”

Lindstrom, the branding author, said he understood the temptation for retailers to switch to clean-smelling scents, but cautioned against doing so and smelling like “every bloody store on the planet.” A better strategy for retailers to welcome back shoppers, he said, is to smell the same as they did before Covid.

“It wakes people up and takes them into a time capsule in the past where everything was normal,” Lindstrom explained, “where everything was safe, and where I had no fear in my mind.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.