Our website uses cookies

Cookies enable us to provide the best experience possible and help us understand how visitors use our website. By browsing Essential Retail Magazine, you agree to our use of cookies.

Okay, I understand Learn more

VM Basics: Using smell in visual merchandising part one

Smell is a very personal yet evocative sense, much underestimated in visual merchandising.

For VM purposes smell can be put into basic categories:

• Flowers, classically associated with feminine perfumes;

• Fruit and vegetables, a sub-section of traditional perfumes, often used to evoke specific seasonal associations

• Spices, used to suggest the exotic.

This article will look at fruit and vegetables.

Tomatoes displayed in Galeries Lafayette’s Paris flagship are redolent of sunny Provence, as also suggested by the name of the supplier on the side of the rough, wooden palette. And while Provence might be associated with Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, lavender, and thyme) tomatoes in themselves don’t have a strong smell. But although the vine does smell a little differently to the actual fruit, tomatoes do have a fresh-smell appeal. We can almost smell and taste the tomatoes in this image, and imagine them thickly sliced, drizzled with viscous green olive oil, and sprinkled with freshly ground salt and pepper…

Which makes the point: taste and smell are closely connected, the major element of taste being smell. Add to this the highly specific associations that all customers develop given their general and unique experiences and all visual merchandisers have a powerful tool to attract attention to merchandise. It should, used with care, increase sales. Well-displayed fresh produce is evocative of good food, good memories, and sybaritic pleasure.

As the Emma Hope store in London’s Chelsea shows here, in a window from April 2015, a combination of real fresh vegetables with her signature decorated pumps works perfectly to suggest the freshness of a new collection. The celery tops and carrots would be particularly evocative to customers who cook, as they are frequently used as a base for stocks and soups.

For those disbelieving of the powerful effect of smell, enter any traditional greengrocers and sniff. Even fruit and vegetables, which don’t have a pronounced individual smell, have an appealing, collective, fresh-ingredient aroma. Faux fruit and vegetables don’t have the same compelling authenticity. Just replace fresh ones regularly as they become tired. Any association with freshness is great for fashion.

Some customers have a keen and sensitive sense of smell, others much less so. For example, many practitioners of the strenuous versions of yoga (a Mysore-style practice of Ashtanga, for example) develop a very keen sense of smell which precludes them from wearing perfume (all perfumes just smell of chemicals to them) and only natural fragrance-imbued oils remain tolerable.

Conversely, recent research suggests older people have a less keen sense of smell than the young. And many will have observed how tolerant cigarette smokers seem to the smell of cigarette smoke on their clothes, and hair, and how ex-smokers are not. This means that the strength of any scent used has to be very carefully considered. Too much is off-putting in a confined store space.

Paimpol in the Brittany region of France, is famous for its hand-picked white beans, sold in their pods, as here in the Galeries Lafayette store. Fresh produce sold loose always looks fresher and more desirable than pre-packed produce and this regional specialty, in season from summer to mid-autumn, marks the seasons for French customers who are free to sniff-and-select as they wish. The place of origin is a nice touch too, indicating freshness by location proximity: how long before we see place of origin labeling return for merchandise categories other than food?

Developing the example a little for VM, strawberry plants bedded with straw, seen here in the National Trust's Chartwell kitchen garden, are widely associated with high summer. Think Pimms, tennis and strawberry trifle…

Using just-flowering or just-fruiting strawberry plants (which of themselves do not smell) surrounded by straw around the base plates of mannequins, with a gentle fresh-strawberry atomizer, would add appeal to any early summer display.

In Emma Hope’s window the wooden palette, hessian sacks, and woven basket add to the ‘just returned from the market’ freshness, the whole underlined by the faux grass, as found on classic greengrocers’ displays. Notice how the colour of the merchandise has been placed with an eye to the colour of the vegetables as props: orange and red tomatoes enhancing orange and red bags; dark aubergines enhancing black ankle-boots, a scattering of green across all elements.

The world’s High Streets and malls should be a delicate olfactory experience.


• What does your store smell like? If this is not a smell with positive associations the store will be losing business as customers either tolerate it for essential purchases, or worse, immediately turn tail and leave. This applies to the loos and fitting rooms too.

• Use fresh fruit and vegetables in displays if possible, replacing as necessary. Faux ones are not compelling unless displayed at a distance where their authenticity cannot be determined.

• Fruit, vegetables, and plants do not have to be scented in themselves. Their mere appearance aided by a well-chosen atomizer with an appropriate scent (there are thousands available), will do the job perfectly.

• As always with any perfumes, care should be taken to just suggest the scent selected, and not to overwhelm the customer with it. Many people have a very keen sense of smell and anything overwhelming is a huge deterrent.