Scent is one of the strongest senses for evoking an emotional response. Just one whiff can take a person back: baking cookies with Grandma, the perfume of one’s first love or a sea breeze that brings back memories of building sand castles as a kid.

This nostalgia provides a route for retailers to tap into their customers’ subconscious and make the shopping experience more sentimental.

The response to scents can be visceral. “When we don’t like the smell of something, we want to get away as far as possible,” says Ted Lawrence, corporate retail category manager for Covington, La.-based PoolCorp.

Of course, in a retail environment, one hopes the response goes the other way. “We want consumers to stay, relax and enjoy,” Lawrence says. “And certainly if they’re making a large purchase, like a spa or a pool or patio furniture, what we would want to do with scent is evoke ... what the product represents.”

Following the big brands
It’s no secret that most large specialty retailers control what customers see and hear in the store. The last frontier is crafting what consumers smell while browsing.
Plenty of research has been done to explore how smell affects buying behavior. The findings have revealed some not-so-obvious tendencies. For instance, one set of experimenters found that bookstore customers would purchase more when introduced to the scent of chocolate.

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“It would actually keep people browsing longer,” says Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing (Wiley, 2011). “They would handle more items — pick them up, examine the books, and buy more items. In that case, there’s no relationship between the scent of chocolate and books, but it had that effect on shoppers.”

The potential effects of scent have not been lost on the business community. Corporations such as Westin Hotels & Resorts, Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Hugo Boss and many other retailers appreciate the important role scent can play in meeting their objectives. Those particular firms enlist the services of ScentAir, a company that specializes in creating aroma profiles.

“When hotel guests walk through that door, [proprietors] know that one of the most important things they can do is to deliver a great first impression,” says Edward Burke, director of marketing and communications for the Charlotte, N.C.-based company. “If they do that, then all the sort of bigger-picture objectives are going to take care of themselves.”

While the conversation about scent has become an industry standard in retail segments such as fashion, not many specialty pool stores have taken the leap into this neuromarketing technique.

The question then is: Should pool and spa stores follow larger retailers boldly into this new branding concept?

Experts give an emphatic yes.

Every specialty pool retailer is looking for small ways to set themselves apart from the big-box merchant down the street, competing pool stores and the Internet. One small whiff that a customer barely notices might be an opportunity, some say.

“I look at it this way: If a scent can give me a small competitive advantage over everybody else, then it’s worth it,” Lawrence says. “If it increases my odds by a small percentage, then why not do it?”

Some pool and spa retailers have noticed the effects scent can have. “When I go to the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, I look forward to walking down the halls to my room, because it has this beautiful citrus smell to it,” says Bill Renter. “Every time I’m there, it makes me feel good.”

That’s why the owner of Long Island Hot Tub, with locations in Farmingdale and Windham, N.Y., has started thinking about the addition of scent to his stores.

The nose knows
If brick-and-mortar retailers are convinced scent marketing is a step they want to take, how do they start? How do they know which scent would be best?

Store owners can hire companies such as ScentAir to walk them through the process. In ScentAir’s case, account reps visit clients’ retail locations to get a sense of the space, find out what owners want to accomplish with the scent (such as extending shopping time or enhancing the experience), and learn about the brand.

But, as with anything else, that expertise comes at a cost. Depending on the space size, number and type of systems, and the overall needs of the store, ScentAir’s services can cost $100 to $200 per month.

PoolCorp is presenting another option for pool retailers to opt into the trend: It has launched eight custom-blended signature fragrances, mixed by ScentAir specifically for pool stores. They are available with the distribution system for less than buying directly from ScentAir.

Retailers willing to invest some time can go it alone by being observant, listening to customers and exploring the options.

“There are other scents that are blended out there in the world,” Lawrence says. “You can go to Yankee Candle and buy premade scents. They do have one that’s the smell of the ocean.”

There are a number of methods for dispersing the scents. For instance, retailers can use reed diffusers or essential oils. One idea is to apply a few drops of essential oil to artificial plants or onto the surface of rocks every few days.

“Even if you bought Glade PlugIns and had them strewn around the store, to me, that would be better than having nothing,” Lawrence says.

One word of caution: Never introduce scent with the open flame of a candle, given the presence of pool and spa chemicals.

One advantage of scenting your store yourself is that retailers with complementary product categories can try different scent profiles for each area, instead of one consistent scent throughout the space.

If the store is 2,000 square feet or smaller, Lawrence recommends using one scent. Those measuring 2,000 to 5,000 square feet can diversify for different product categories for a total of two or three notes.

Retailers aren’t limited to one scent profile from this day forward, forever hold their peace. Changing seasons and rotating inventory are the perfect times to switch the notes floating through the air.

“During the holiday season, you may have scents introducing some sort of Christmassy smells — pine scent and so on — to get people in that shopping mood,” Dooley says.

The smell of success
When it comes to honing in on the right scent, it’s all about making the shopping experience a pleasant one and tying the chosen scent into positive memories.
The scent doesn’t always have to be related to the environment. Many casinos introduce a floral scent into gaming areas to keep players there longer. “There is plenty of research showing that unrelated scents can still affect behavior,” Dooley says.

Studies also have shown a link between a scent’s complexity and the amount of money consumers will spend in a store. Shoppers, it seems, spend more when exposed to simpler scents than they do when detecting fragrances containing more than one base element.

“Our general rule of thumb is: Subtle is always better,” Burke says. “Even too much of a really great scent is just too much.”

This even applies in pool and spa environments, which come with their own inherent smells, which scent specialists refer to as the scent noise floor.

“We’d still probably want to do something that’s subtle, something that’s very clean,” Burke says.

Generally favored scents, such as vanilla — which can be blended with almost any other scent — and citrus, historically perform well in retail situations. Lavender, peppermint, sandalwood and woodsy tones such as pine also are common. While lavender, peppermint and pine are relaxing, citrus is an energizing note.

But there are scent trends as well. ScentAir is using grapefruit notes in many settings, and has found that thyme, eucalyptus, basil and teas currently are popular scent profiles.

A customer’s emotional response also can be triggered by featuring specific scents near certain types of merchandise. For example, retailers may wish to create the relaxing environment of a day spa near the hot-tub displays. The smell of wine, a pre-blended ocean scent or even lavender can help with this goal.

Pool store owners also could borrow a strategy used at Bloomingdale’s: Scenting the swimsuit area with a coconut note. “Swimwear doesn’t smell like coconuts, but [that scent] gives you the idea of beach, laying in the sun, putting suntan lotion on,” Dooley says. “That kind of scent — sort of a suntan lotion scent, if you will — might work very well for a pool store.”

For big-ticket item areas, scents could increase the time customers spend browsing. In this vein, citrus, sandalwood or cinnamon are good choices near patio furniture, Lawrence says.

Weighing the options
As for Renter, scent remains in his plans for the showroom. Recently, an employee bought a plug-in scent for the office that coincidentally was the citrus scent that Renter prefers, giving him an idea to try while he explores his options for a cost-effective solution.

“I might try those plug-in ones just to get started and see how it works out,” he adds. “If it’s not too overpowering for me, because I have to work there also, then that might be something that we start with.”