Friday, August 2, 2013

Can the Aroma of Chocolate Save Bookstores?

There has been a lot of press coverage recently concerning a Belgian study on the effects of chocolate scent on consumer behavior in a bookstore. The stories often imply that chocolate scent sells more books, while the headlines play on the idea that scent marketing might mean salvation for the ever-shrinking fortunes of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

As is standard practice here at FN, I prefer not to comment on such massively hyped stories until I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of the actual scientific study. Well, I have and now I will.

Just for fun, let’s start with an example of the standard press coverage, namely David Winograd’s story in the HuffPo headlined “Smell Of Chocolate In Bookstores Increases Sales, Study Finds.” According to Winograd, the study
suggests that the smell of chocolate in bookstores encourages customers to spend more time browsing for books.
This is misleading. In the study, a female observer recorded behaviors of randomly selected bookstore customers in a yes/no fashion; she did not record how much time a customer spent on any activity, nor was elapsed time a variable in any of the statistical analyses. Winograd’s mischaracterization is important, because in other studies have shown ambient scent to increase the time customers spend in stores, which in turn increases the likelihood of a purchase. This new study cannot be interpreted as supporting those results.

Winograd’s summary is misleading for another reason: While chocolate aroma made browsing of romance novels and cook books more likely, it made browsing of history and crime books significantly less likely. In other words, the effects of chocolate aroma on consumer behavior depend very specifically on book genre, an outcome the study was designed to test. Did Winograd miss that? Did he think it would complicate his story line? Did he think it was above the heads of HuffPo readers? Who knows.

The study itself, a collaboration between marketing and communications professors at Hasselt University and the University of Antwerp, turns out to be quite well-designed. It compared consumer behavior in a bookstore under scented and non-scented conditions. The conditions were counter-balanced across mornings and afternoons to eliminate time-of-day effects. (Nice touch #1.) The scent was released from two locations that reached the entire store; intensity levels were set low enough that visitors didn’t spontaneously notice it, but easily recognized it as chocolate when attention as drawn to it. (Nice touch #2.)

The researchers measured a series of behaviors, some general (browsing multiple books, hanging out, chatting with sales staff, etc.) and some goal-directed (marching up to the counter and asking for a specific book etc.). The observer also noted consumer involvement with specific genres of books, two that were congruent with chocolate (romance novels and cookbooks) and two that were not (history and crime). Congruent and incongruent genres were identified through pilot testing. (Nice touch #3.)

The results, though mixed, make a lot of sense. Chocolate scent increased the likelihood of examining romance and cooking, but decreased the likelihood of browsing history and crime. (Results were adjusted for gender bias in genre. Nice touch #4.) In other words, consumer response to an ambient scent depends on how well it matches particular items on sale.

Overall, sales in scented periods were 5.07% higher than during nonscented periods. Sales of congruent genres jumped 40.07%; those of non-congruent genres 22.19%. So Winograd’s headline is narrowly correct. But it misses the important lessons for scent marketers, namely that a campaign should be designed with specific products, scents, and behaviors in mind.

The study discussed here is “Smelling the books: The effect of chocolate scent on purchase-related behavior in a bookstore,” by Lieve DoucĂ©, Karolien Poels, Wim Janssens, Charlotte De Backer, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology 36:65, 2013.

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