In Brief

People who tend to make unplanned purchases spend even more freely when shopping in the presence of background music, while contemplative shoppers buy slightly less than usual when music is playing. However, when a pleasant citrus smell pervades a store, non-impulsive buyers spend more, while impulsive shoppers spend less, reported Maureen Morrin, PhD, at APA's 2005 Annual Convention. All types of shoppers purchase less than usual when in the presence of both scent and music, perhaps due to sensory overload, Morrin's as-yet-unpublished research indicates.

"This could be a caveat for managers--don't throw everything you have at your customers," says Morrin, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Morrin and her collaborators enhanced the atmosphere of a suburban shopping mall in Canada over the course of a month. On different days, they played slow-tempo popular music, filled the mall with a citrus scent, played the music and emitted the scent, or left the mall's atmosphere un-enhanced. On each day, the researchers surveyed shoppers and asked if they had made unplanned purchases that day and how much they had spent. The shoppers--774 in all--also noted how much they enjoyed their shopping experience that day and whether items were easy to find in the mall.

While the pleasant scent and music did not have any effect on the shoppers' reported moods, they did affect how much the shoppers spent. Shoppers who had made an unplanned purchase spent, on average, $32.89 more when music was playing than those in the control condition. When a scent was present, they spent about $8.66 less. Contemplative buyers spent about $1.00 less than usual when music played, but in the presence of the citrus smell, they spent $5.71 more than usual.

Additionally, the contemplative shoppers in the presence of the citrus smell were more likely to note that they had an easy time finding what they were looking for in the mall.

Past research by Morrin showed that pleasant scents can enhance cognition and cause people to better remember the details of products. The citrus scent may have helped the contemplative shoppers navigate the mall more efficiently, thus increasing their spending, she suggested. Music, on the other hand, generally improves mood rather than cognition, and impulsive shoppers rely on mood to make purchasing decisions, said Morrin. Perhaps the music subconsciously improved impulsive shoppers' moods, which led them to spend more, she said.

Marketers may want to assess what type of shoppers they have, and deploy music or scent accordingly, Morrin noted.

"If you are selling high-risk items like cars you may want to use scent rather than music," she said.