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The Retail Science of Food Aromas Gets an Upgrade

Delicious aromas in the store will increase a shopper's desire to try and buy
Photograph: Shutterstock

the lempert reporty

Decades ago, the science of scents was so convincing that some retailers actually installed machines that would automatically “spray” artificially created aromas that could induce those same mouthwatering and sales responses—until consumer advocates disclosed this practice. Yet to this day, these man-made food scents are still used by nonfood retailers to put shoppers in a better mood for buying.

Samsung’s flagship store in New York City, for example, pumps the aroma of honeydew melons into the store. Disney places scent-emitting machines strategically throughout its theme parks to disperse scents of cotton candy, popcorn, and caramel apples. Food retailers, however, had to go back to relying on their own bakers and pizza makers to create those delightful sensory experiences.

New research from professors at the University of South Florida and Louisiana State University—The Smell of Healthy Choices: Cross-Modal Sensory Compensation Effects of Ambient Scent on Food Purchases—may offer a new approach to using food aromas. Their research included field studies at a supermarket and a middle school cafeteria, where they discovered what possibly could be one of the most effective ways to get our shoppers to make healthier food choices.

If your bakery department were to make some delicious, fat-laden aromatic cookies, they would fly off the shelves, right? Not necessarily. Perhaps it’s because people today—or at least the study’s more than 900 middle school students, who are economically underprivileged and live in a working-class neighborhood, as well as the customers who shopped on a Saturday in an average national grocery store—are more aware of what is healthy than people were, say, 20 years ago. So just the opposite occurred.

The researchers in these two field tests, as well as in four additional lab-based studies, found that aromas that lasted two minutes or more actually had the opposite effect. Aromas that lasted less than 30 seconds had the desired effect.

In the school cafeteria, the scents of pizza and apples were tested. On the day the pizza scent was tested, a total of 2,931 food and beverage items were sold, 628 items (21.43%) of which were unhealthy. The day that the apple scent was used, 2,819 items were sold, out of which 1,042 (36.96%) were unhealthy. As all good researchers do, they also had a control day during which no scent was sprayed; on that day, 36.54% of the items bought fell into the unhealthy category.

In the supermarket, the scents of cookies and strawberry scents were used, and the findings were similar. The more than two-minute indulgent cookie scent resulted in shoppers buying healthier foods, and the more than two-minute non-indulgent strawberry scent resulted in a greater share of unhealthy food purchases.

So for those supermarkets that have taken a position of helping their customers choose better-for-you foods, it may be time to do a survey of the aromas in your stores, and see just how long your customers are exposed to them.

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