The Games Companies Play
Consumers are trained to buy, even when they don't really want to. Companies have developed a range of strategies, from quickly rotating merchandise to infusing stores with certain scents and sounds, to get customers to spend more than they would otherwise. Fueled in part by a growing mound of research that suggests consumers are responsive to such tactics, more and more retailers are turning to them. Within the past 18 months, "it really got legs in U.S. retail," David Van Epps, chief executive of ScentAir, says of scent.
At Zara, the Spanish-owned clothing store, the turquoise and beige tunic on sale one day will be replaced by a yellow ruffled sundress the next. If you want the tunic, you have to buy it now, instead of waiting for a sale. According to the company, stores' entire contents are turned over every three to four weeks, and new clothes arrive twice a week.
"They're training their customers to buy an item if they see something they like, because next week it might not be there," says Robert Swinney, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "That way you get people to buy at full price." Swinney's research, based on mathematical modeling, suggests that profits can be boosted by an average of 67 percent with such a strategy.
Kit Yarrow, professor of consumer psychology at Golden Gate University, says that the quick-rotation strategy has the same disorienting effect as midnight madness sales and one-day specials. "They're training [consumers] to purchase even though they may not be ready," she says. "If people are buying for fear or anxiety that it won't be available, then they're less likely to make good purchasing decisions."
H&M, which also relies on the rapid-turnover strategy, says it is just satisfying customers' desire to stay on top of fast-changing fashion trends. Plus, adds company spokeswoman Lisa Sandberg, "prices are affordable, so it's OK" to buy something if you like it.
Companies including Sony and Westin Hotels & Resorts employ a range of smells to spur spending. Sony Style stores, which sell the company's consumer electronics, puff a sweetish scent with citrus bases and vanilla overtones into the air. "They wanted to appeal to a female buyer more intimidated by electronic items," says Van Epps of ScentAir, which helped Sony develop its secret formula.
Christine Belich, Sony's vice president of visual merchandising, says that it's not possible to connect the scent directly to a boost in sales but the goal is to create an enjoyable shopping environment where customers want to linger. She adds that the scent was designed to appeal to both men and women. (The scent can be quite subtle—it could hardly be detected on a recent visit to the Sony Style store at Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va.)
At Westin hotels, guests are greeted with an earthy, musky scent called White Tea, which was designed for the company. Amy Heilgeist, director of guest experience, says Westin created the scent to help guests feel renewed as soon as they arrived. Like Sony's Belich, she says it is impossible to link the smell to an increase in bookings, but she adds that Westin has already sold out of the 10,000 units of White Tea available through its retail arm.
While companies may shy away from evidence that proves the scent-spend connection, researchers have spent years collecting it. A study by Eric Spangenberg, dean of the College of Business at Washington State University, found that certain scents—Rose Maroc in men's clothing stores and vanilla in women's—increased shopping time, number of items purchased, and amount spent.
Music also has an effect. Maureen Morrin, associate professor of marketing at Rutgers University, found that people who make unplanned purchases tend to buy more in the presence of pleasant background music. She also found that scent and music together decreased spending, perhaps because people felt put off by sensory overload. (Such overload may work at a store like Abercrombie & Fitch, which imbues its stores with a musky scent and pounding music, because its target market is younger and may enjoy the stimulation, Morrin says.)
Muzak, which develops companies' soundtracks, explains that the restaurant chain Red Lobster's use of breezy pop songs, such as "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You)" by Marvin Gaye, "embraces customers and makes them feel cared for and loved."
Whether being stimulated by sound or smell, consumers are usually blissfully unaware of the fact that they are shopping under the influence. "The average consumer doesn't understand that they are being manipulated in that environment," says Anna Mattila, associate professor of marketing at Pennsylvania State University.
Not that manipulation is necessarily nefarious. "We're trying to build a retail environment that people want to spend more time in and then to increase the likelihood that they spend money," says Spangenberg, who also consults for companies on their scent strategies.
At the end of the day, both shoppers and retailers can benefit when people buy what they really want. "If people can be logical in thinking through a product purchase," says Yarrow, "I don't think there's anything wrong with buying it."