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A shopper stands under a scent diffuser in Benetton’s Chicago flagship store on Michigan Avenue. Scenting is becoming more common as companies try to distinguish themselves with customers.

Scenting spreads locally

Companies piping aromas into stores to appeal to customer emotion

Ryane

Retailers say sales are spurred by smell.

Long the domain of casinos and hotels, scenting is increasingly catching on among retailers and in car showrooms, sports stadiums, airports, banks and apartment buildings that seek to distinguish themselves with customers through the deeply influential sense of smell.

But Indiana University retail expert Theresa Williams said the concept is nothing new at storefronts.

“When you walk into a store, your senses should be affected in a certain way,” said Williams, director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at IU. “They’ve been doing this off and on for some time.”

Williams said it seems retailers are returning to a tried-and-true approach to draw customers.

“Smell is a way to try to enhance the sensory experience,” she said. “It’s not just smell, but everything from the type of music being played, color schemes, lighting and the way a store is laid out.”

And the experience is going to vary among retailers. For instance, take Abercrombie & Fitch.

“The music is so loud, but the kids love it,” Williams said. “The core customers are 13 to 18-year-olds, so parents probably won’t enjoy the atmosphere.”

Christopher James Menswear owner Chris Lambert is aware of scenting, but said he’s never considered it at his Covington Plaza store.

“I know there is so much psychology that goes into stuff like that,” Lambert said. “I respect the idea of using scents, but I don’t do it. I don’t want to play games with our customers. I have too much respect for them.”

Cecilia Ryane appreciates that. The 40-year-old Fort Wayne resident recently shopped at the Apple Glen plaza. She isn’t exactly thrilled to have various scents wafting across her nose.

“If I smell certain scents, it could be a turnoff and make me want to leave a store,” Ryane said. “Some perfumes women wear just linger long after they’re gone. I don’t need that inside a store too.”

Environment does play a role in where Ryane shops, though.

“I look for an atmosphere that’s well lit and relaxing,” she said. “As far as smells, I don’t think they’ve had an affect on me.”

Perhaps, but while smells can be a turnoff or cause health problems for some people, the global scent-marketing industry is on the rise, grossing an estimated $200 million in revenue last year and growing around 10 percent annually, said Jennifer Dublino, vice president of development at ScentWorld Events, the industry’s trade group in Scarsdale, N.Y.

The tactic also is gaining traction among businesses hoping to drum up sales thanks to research that has shown the right scent can open people’s wallets, project a sense of comfort and home (think hotels), shorten the time you believe you’re waiting (think banking), or even improve your sense of performance (think gym).

Scent marketing is divided into two main categories: ambient scenting, which fills a space with a pleasant smell, and scent branding, which develops a signature scent specific to a brand, like an olfactory logo. The former can cost $100 to $1,000 a month, depending on the size of the space. The latter can run anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000, plus a monthly maintenance fee.

Is it worth it?

Robert Argueta, director of visual merchandising for the United Colors of Benetton, says yes.

“It finishes the emotion we are trying to create in the store,” he said. The retailer is testing a scent at flagship stores in Chicago and New York.

Argueta has been so pleased with the feedback, and the inadvertent increase in cologne sales, that he plans to roll it out in more stores. “It’s the first and last impression a customer gets,” he said.

Williams said she gets it.

“They’re trying to set a certain mood,” she said, “I wouldn’t say (scenting) is manipulative because if you don’t like it you can always leave.”

That’s what Ryane does.

“I have a problem with synthetic perfumes,” she said. “I heard somewhere that men like the smell of bacon and that it’s supposed to do something to them, which sounds kind of crazy to me.”

pwyche@jg.net

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story

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