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VM basics: using smell in VM part 2

Rose and lavender are classic scents. Rose has long been used as a perfume base. But both rose and lavender have also been widely used in cleaning products, to the extent that this is the primary association some customers make with them.

Dried lavender also has a lovely association with bed linen, from the widespread custom of adding sprigs between stored bedding. It can be added to home display areas for a traditional touch.

People are very sensitive to smell, even the tiniest trace of a scent. It is a sense that commonly declines with age, but not for everybody. Some customers retain the perceptive sense they had as children even in old age and, generally, women have a better sense of smell than men. This variability, plus personal associations, makes employing perfume a tricky yet rewarding strategy.

Heritage perfume-brand Floris regularly uses flowers in its Jermyn Street windows, as here with fresh tulips and rose leaves in a simple glass vase set behind a lace-themed window. Tulips have no fragrance, allowing the perfumes tested by customers in-store to stand alone.

Some smells can be very appealing, even if not from classic floral sources. Imagine the crisp scent of bruised geranium leaves, as used in this D&G Spring/Summer 15 window. The flowers themselves are barely perfumed at all.


The smell of cut grass, as experienced in Cath Kidston’s ‘Hello Sunshine’ store window, is in a similar category.

Sometimes the faintest suggestion of a floral scent forms a pleasant but undistinguished background in VM, as here for the new M&S food and fashion store at London’s Waterloo Station. A faux cherry blossom-covered tree in its acrylic cage, balanced by branches extending to the back of the windows on the left side, allows two mannequins to form a pleasing harmony. Cherry blossom has a slight perfume and beautifully, but fleetingly, heralds spring in the many cities of the world. Sakura retailing, cherry blossom time, is a huge event in Japan and spreading globally.

The aroma of wisteria falls in the same subtle category. Redolent of late spring, some wisterias have no perfume at all, others are beautifully fragrant, as this one wreathed around the balcony of a wooden building on the Leeds Castle estate.

A whiff of magnolia is another almost fugitive perfume: some are creamy, sweetly scented, with a citrus note; others are not perfumed at all. An extremely old plant, as this one from Wrest Park, they were originally pollenated by beetles. This is why their flowers are thick and waxy and lend themselves brilliantly to visual merchandising installations, as they can be so easily created as a parchment paper prop.

Early VM research suggests a link between sales and perfume: for example, that sales of training shoes increase when a retail space is infused with the scent of lavender. But more specific links between a given scent and particular merchandise sales increases have not yet been researched, aside from perfume sales increasing when the store space is sprayed with a brand’s perfume.

This straightforward relationship is rather similar to the appeal that frying bacon might have at breakfast time, but consider how unpleasant the smell of frying bacon might be later in the day. In-store perfumes may also be time dependent. And it is not easy to see how more evidence of the effects of scent on sales might be researched, given the number of other factors that alter a customer’s behavior.

Many scents, including chemical-derived ones close to ethanol (menthol, alcohol, etc) are experienced by the human nose as somato-sensory experiences, that is as a physical sensation. This sense category includes temperature or pain sensitivities. Even customers with no remaining sense of smell can ‘smell’ them.

To conclude, perfume - but not too much and not all the time - can enhance sales. The rule of thumb for effective use seems to be the pleasure of serendipity: just as a flower is extra-pleasing because it has a perfume as well as being beautiful to look at, a faint perfume is pleasing, but too much is decidedly off-putting.