Crafting the perfect ambient scent for your stores via the 'six scent families'

Crafting the perfect ambient scent for your stores via the 'six scent families'

By Richard Weening, CEO, Prolitec

Some of us are a bit skeptical about the notion that specific smells can change human behavior. But scientists say otherwise. Consider a paper published a couple of years ago in the Journal of Social Psychology. Repeated 400 times, the experiment proved that the pleasant scent of fresh-baked bread made shoppers more likely to help a "stranger" (played by a researcher) who had dropped a personal item and walked away. Another study showed people were more likely to clean crumbs off a conference table if citrus wafted through the air.

Altruistic or tidy behavior as a function of scent? It might seem hard to believe. But these findings are part of a large body of scientific literature on the ability of fragrances to influence mood and cognitive function. In one Duke University study, the scent of lavender relaxed study participants every bit as much as a physical massage.

From a physiological standpoint, this is no surprise. After all, smell is our most primal sense. It is processed in the same part of the brain that handles our emotions, memory and creativity — the limbic system. The acuity of our sense of smell, moreover, is remarkable: it is widely believed that humans can distinguish over 10,000 different scents.

Little wonder more retail designers — who already think carefully about the potential effects of sights, sounds, textures and traffic-flow patterns on the environments they create — are now contemplating the role of scent in the customer experience. Over the past few years, a growing number of retail chains — Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Giorgio Armani and Ben Bridge Jewelers, to name a few — have launched ambient-scenting programs in their stores to good effect.

But just as certain colors are energizing and others soothing, different fragrances have different effects on shoppers' moods. It follows that retail execs and store designers should take some time to educate themselves about the basics of olfaction as a sense and about ambient scenting. Generally speaking, ambient scenting is the automated diffusion and maintenance of a scent throughout a space. This can be used for scent marketing (i.e., to sell a particular scented product) or scent branding (i.e., to associate a particular scent with a brand, experience, décor, product or service). In tandem with this, the fragrance effect can accomplish goals such as remediating malodors or influencing cognition, emotion and behavior.

Sometimes associated with the New Age movement, the term "aromatherapy" is one way to describe the use of scent to affect human cognition and behavior. This might seem controversial to some, but consider the following propositions:

  • Humans prefer pleasant smelling places to unpleasant smelling places.
  • Humans associate scents with people, places, products and experiences.
  • Scent is the most powerful trigger of memory or recall of these associations.

Aromatherapy is only a way of using scents to help. There are many ways of creating scents, and the nose is sensitive to them all. Most of us can confirm all of the above simply by examining our own subjective experience: We know what it is like to be in an environment permeated by a strong malodor, and we have vividly relived past events after running across scents strongly associated with them.

As retailers think about potential approaches to the olfactory environments in particular stores, they could start by applying a basic understanding of what I would call the "primary colors" of ambient scenting — namely, the six scent families. These are:


This family includes: lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, bergamot and clementine. Citrus scents are often described as crisp and clean. They are rejuvenating and stimulating and work best for brands seeking to convey a high-energy store environment.


The main floral scents are rose, jasmine, gardenia, orange blossoms, and violet. Floral scents range from innocent and sweet scents to the sophisticated and exotic options. Florals are often used in upscale contexts such as fashion boutiques or jewelry stores—places where fresh flowers were often used for their smell.


Outdoorsy scents include woodsy notes such as pine and cedar; green notes such as fresh green grass and mint; and herbal notes of basil and sage. These scents are characterized as refreshing, clean, and nature-inspired. They would work well in almost any setting, but make perfect sense for outdoor activity outfitters or stores with an eco-friendly emphasis.


Fruity fragrances are bright, uplifting, often youthful, while also anxiety-reducing. Examples of fruity notes include peach, apple, pear, plum, and apricot. These popular options are seen in many new fine fragrances and are perfect for specialty fashion retailers.


Best likened to "the scent in the air after a thunderstorm," this family is usually described as airy and fresh, subtle and light. Ozonic fragrances are often used in small spaces, perhaps to reinforce the impression of a fresh, breezy and open atmosphere. These fragrances are ideal for small gift shops, clothing stores or other spaces that might have competing scents due to a variety of scented products for sale.


Aromas like coffee and chocolate are designed to convey the scent dimension of a food and to create a homey and cozy environment. These are especially well suited to specialty food shops, kitchenware and tabletop stores.

When planning an ambient scenting program, the first step for retailers is to match the goal of the campaign with one of the families above — possibly by working with an ambient scenting expert. Also important, however, are the intensity-level and formulation of the fragrance. An overpowering fragrance can backfire, sending customers fleeing for the door. Fortunately, leading-edge scent-delivery technology allows stores to control scent intensities at the touch of a button, in much the same way that homeowners and storeowners can dial the music up or down.

For those retailers that haven't taken the plunge, ambient scenting represents an untapped opportunity to express creativity and incite moods--like a nice photograph in a store or hotel. The key is to "get it right" from the beginning by taking an informed approach that matches brand attributes with the primal power of smell.

Richard Weening is CEO of scent-marketing and ambient-scenting firm Prolitec Inc. (Photo by Dennis Wong.)

Topics: Customer Experience, Digital Merchandising, Point-of-Purchase / POP, Store Design & Layout

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