Today, most retailers spend their time attracting shoppers with email marketing, paid advertisements, and steep discounts. However, one of the most impactful marketing techniques is often overlooked: sensory marketing.
Abercrombie & Fitch uses strong colognes, dim lighting, and loud music to make their target audience, young adults, feel mature and trendy. If you’ve ever visited an Apple store, their functional displays, sleek design, and open layout is intended to feel futuristic, yet approachable.
Sensory marketing is achieved when brands use the five senses to encourage an emotional response. While Abercrombie & Fitch and Apple’s marketing strategies are certainly effective, oftentimes subtle multi-sensory experiences can have the same effect in retail stores.
What is a Sensory Marketing Strategy?
Sensory marketing, or branding, in retail refers to using the five senses to draw connections between a store and a shopper’s emotions and memories. It is most successful when a purchase is driven by a shopper’s sensory experience subconsciously before reason kicks in.
When you account for all your audience’s senses, you’ll start to notice it exposes things in your business you may not have easily noticed before. Making sure all five of your customers’ senses are catered to is an achievable growth strategy and will make shopping in your store more engaging. Shoppers will be more inclined to come in and look around, even if they’re not quite sure why.
Why is Sensory Branding Important?
Strengthens your brand loyalty through emotional connections
Competitive advantage over online stores
Encourages shoppers to spend more time in your store to increase sales
Increases the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns with your target audience
Makes a customer feel good about their purchase
Sight is by far the most important of the five senses to retailers. How your store looks will communicate a lot. People are very visual by nature and it’s the quickest way to make a judgment about whether or not we’re drawn to something.
First, ensure that your store’s exterior is welcoming. A few dollars spent on a welcome mat, some potted plants, and an “Open” sign go a long way for encouraging consumers to come in. However, when it comes to exteriors, basic maintenance is key. Replacing burned out lightbulbs, taking down weathered signage, and applying a fresh coat of paint will give your business a lively look.
It’s important, when designing the visual experience in store, you take into consideration both your branding and product. For instance, a jewelry store should have bright lighting so shoppers can confidently choose the piece they’re looking for. Contrastingly, a children’s toy store should be designed with bright colors, lots of texture, and interactive elements.
The way your inventory is displayed makes an impression on your customer, whether you realize it or not. A dusty product on a shelf just tells the customer, “no one’s bought me so far, why should you?” A dim corner of the store says, “don’t come over here.” An empty shelf just means profit you’re missing out on.
In general, consumers are drawn to consistency. Whether products are organized by color, brand, price, size, etc, having an intentional feel will help set customer expectations. Also, we suggest giving your products some whitespace, especially when displayed on tables. When products are sitting closely together it tends to be overwhelming and individual products don’t draw your attention.
Also, eye-catching merchandising displays are nice, but it’s easy to get carried away. When you turn your displays into a work of art, your customers may think it’s cool, but it also probably means they won’t want to be the ones who undo all your hard work. The more there is to admire, the less inclination there is to touch, which we’ll talk about next.
Touch is one of the biggest reasons consumers choose to shop in store because it’s challenging to convey online and with digital marketing. Studies show that 75% of consumers prefer a tactile experience before purchasing a product. Once a person actually touches a product, the likelihood of them making a purchase increases dramatically so use sensory marketing to your advantage when designing your displays.
Temperature is one of the smartest ways to impact how your customers feel in your store. Keep your store warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The moment your customer walks through the door they should feel comfortable if you want them to stick around and shop.
Your store should typically be a bit cooler than the average temperature in your house to allow for the extra layers of outdoor clothes your customers wear in from outside. Also, don’t forget about the comfort of your employees, especially if they have to adhere to a dress code.
Your product display design is arguably the best way to use sensory branding as it relates to touch. Are there any products in your store out of a shopper’s reach? Move products off of the top shelves that need staff assistance to eye-level, hanging, or tabletop displays. Retailers that keep expensive products, like jewelry or sunglasses, behind glass should consider keeping one piece on a secured display for consumers to get a closer look at.
Also, when designing a space for sensory experiences in your store, think about what products you have in your store and what your customers want from them. Stores with highly textured products, for example sherpa sweaters, should be placed in front to encourage shoppers to feel and try on.
If you’re a retailer that has products consumers can interact with, create a retail merchandising experience that’s only available in store. Circling back to Apple, their physical store marketing strategy encourages touch by functioning like a museum. While they engage multiple senses, Apple stores are designed to be open, bright, and full of white space to draw shoppers’ attention to interacting with their product.
Smell is one of the most effective uses of sensory marketing because it directly connects to your brain’s limbic system, which stores long-term memory. That means scents have the ability to make your customers nostalgic and remember your store long after they visit.
Marketing strategies using scent were first pioneered in the early days of department stores in Selfridges in London. The streets of London were so unsanitary due to horse-drawn transportation, Harry Selfridge moved the perfume counters right up to the entrance. That way, customers coming in from the streets would be welcomed with the floral, exotic mixtures of French perfumes. Those ideas have stuck around today and is the reason most grocery stores have fresh flowers or the bakery by the entrance.
Before you decide on a scent profile that aligns with your marketing efforts, we recommend first doing a quick “smell check” in your store. Any aroma that’s not intentional should be removed. There is a big difference between adding some scents to the air and masking a bad smell with a good one. Make sure your store, and everything it’s composed of, is clean before you add aromas.
Pick a scent for your store that has an emotional or nostalgic connection that attracts your target audience. Coffee shops like Starbucks are one of the best examples of triggering the limbic system with fresh coffee. Even though it would be cheaper for Starbucks to prepare the beans at their warehouses, they found that the coffee aroma was so essential for their branded experience and driving sales.
Seasonal scents are also a powerful sensory branding tool to highlight new emotions, memories, and products for the time of year. Retailers can use Christmas pine candles during the holiday shopping season and ocean spray during the summer.
However, when businesses realize the importance of smells, they often overcompensate and end up overwhelming shoppers with strong odors. Just remember, a little bit goes a long way. If you’re vaguely aware of a smell when you walk through the door, that’s what you want.
Also, remember that many people are sensitive to strong scents. Avoid anything spicy, like cinnamon-infused aromas, or anything too sweet, like vanilla or berry, or anything that smells like food unless you actually sell those foods.
Taste is often underestimated in sensory marketing or overlooked because it can be challenging. However, it’s extremely powerful in creating multi-sensory experiences because of how closely related it is to smell and memory. For example, many children grow up still drawn to Christmas tree farms because they remember receiving candy canes after picking out their tree.
Offering your customers a treat just for coming in is a great way to make an impression. Low-cost options like hard candy, popcorn, and fresh coffee are always good options. Before you decide on a snack, be sure to think through the implications of anything you do decide to offer. Popcorn may be fun, but greasy fingers in a clothing store probably isn’t what you want.
Also, make sure your taste marketing strategy is purposeful. Place snacks where you want your customers to be and have your employees engage with shoppers in those hotspots.
Don’t feel like you have to offer treats every single day, either. Fridays and the weekends are usually the best times for anything that requires more preparation, such as coffee or donuts, and a bowl of candy may be easier to manage day-to-day.
Sound is the final part of creating a sensory marketing strategy. Every retailer has a soundtrack whether they realize it or not. The only question is whether that soundtrack invites people in or gives them a reason to leave.
Before you choose a sound profile for your store, take a few seconds and register to what you’re actually hearing. The conversations, the low hum of the ventilation, or perhaps music coming from the back.
Just how loud was the ventilation? If you haven’t noticed it until you specifically listened for it, it is probably fine. But if you heard it right away it might be a maintenance problem to look into. Same goes for buzzing lights, squeaky wheels/hinges, or anything that rattles.
Sound is a telltale sign that something needs repair. Things in disrepair are signs to your customer that they are in a place that might not be here very long, or that isn’t trustworthy. Address those issues sooner than that later so you don’t miss out on any lost profit.
The right music should compliment your products and your target audience’s likes. For example, a body shop that makes homemade soaps would likely be more successful playing nature sounds than 80s pop. Likewise, some wine shops tend to play jazz or feature music from the regions they import their wine from.
When it comes to your soundscape, music should be distributed as evenly as possible and speakers should be discreet and blend into their surroundings.
The volume should be low enough to still have a quiet conversation at the same volume, as if there were no music. Also, it’s worth it to go ad-free. If a customer is standing in your store listening to ads, they’re not thinking about other products your store doesn’t sell. Ads are made to distract and you don’t want them distracting a shopper from completing a purchase.
Sensory Marketing Best Practices for Retail
Create multi-sensory experiences specially curated for your target audience.
Align your sensory branding with the rest of your marketing strategies for a consistent brand experience via email, social, and in store.
Use A/B testing to test out different sensory marketing strategies. For example, test the display for a cashmere sweater to increase touch or switch up the background music. However, be careful of testing your retail sensory marketing too much at a time and creating an overwhelming experience for your customers.
Consider working with interior designers familiar with sensory branding.
Instead of solely focusing on visual or auditory sensory marketing, try incorporating one or two other sensory strategies to create a cohesive and stronger shopping experience.