Fox School of BusinessIdea Marketplace

Fox researcher’s revolutionary study correlates scents with purchasing tendencies


March 24th, 2015

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Dr. Maureen Morrin
Dr. Maureen Morrin

Could a spicy cinnamon scent persuade you to buy a Lexus? A professor from the Fox School of Business thinks so.

Dr. Maureen Morrin, Professor of Marketing at the Fox School, and a collaborative research team found a definitive connection between warm scents, consumer preference for luxury (more expensive items), and an increase in overall spending.

“If there is a warm scent in the room, people perceive the room to be smaller, and more full of other people,” Morrin said, citing the research findings of she and her team. “As a result, they feel a little less socially powerful. In order to restore their feeling of power, they prefer premium or luxury brands.”

Morrin and her research colleagues (Dr. Adriana Madzharov of the Stevens Institute of Technology, and Dr. Lauren Block of Baruch College) published the findings of their scent-power correlation research in the Journal of Marketing in January 2015. Their research also received mention in Science Daily. The study is believed to be the first of its kind to examine how temperature-related associations with smell affect our spatial perceptions and sense of self-importance.

For her most-recent study, Morrin and her colleagues exposed test subjects to two identical retail environments, and then subtly manipulated the scent in each atmosphere to be either warm, like spicy cinnamon, or cool, like minty menthol. They found that consumers exposed to the warm scents felt less socially powerful, finding the room crowded and overwhelming. To assuage their insecurities, they not only purchased more goods, but showed a preference for luxury items assumed to increase one’s social status, Morrin said. Conversely, those participants in cool-scented environments showed no inclination toward or against the luxury items, and bought less overall.

“Cool scents tend to work in an opposite direction than warm scents in terms of their impact on how powerful you feel within a given environment,” Morrin said.

Morrin, whose research interests include sensory processing and consumer decision-making, has always been interested in pioneering studies regarding the correlation between scent and consumer behavior.

The idea of warm and cool scents emerges from learned associations between foods and scents that can influence our conscious perceptions. When one smells menthol, the association is immediately with mint, which to our taste buds is cool, Morrin said, while vanilla and cinnamon evoke opposite reactions.

Morrin’s study revealed that not only can scent prime our emotions, it actually alters our idea of ourselves in space. Morrin’s test subjects reported increased crowding in rooms with warmer scents when the population remained constant. Conversely, the shoppers in cool-scented rooms reported increased spatial perception and a reduced number of people in the room.

Should retailers take advantage of these findings, Morrin said the market for luxury goods can be targeted acutely.

“Retailers of luxury goods might consider how their store’s atmospherics impact shoppers’ spatial perceptions,” she said. “Aspects of the retail environment that elicit power-compensatory consumer responses might lead to a greater preference for and purchasing of luxury brands.”

Morrin said she hopes to continue her investigation, and is currently working with several doctoral students from the Fox School to investigate other ties between scent and consumer behavior. The next step, she said, could be determining how ambient scents, especially those outside of our conscious awareness, could influence our purchase choices.

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