Opinion

Exploring your senses


By Karl McKeever | 20.01.16

Retailers spend millions of pounds every year working to convert sales by making an emotional connection with customers. Until recently, these efforts have largely been limited to visual stimuli, but as we creep into 2016 a growing number of retailers are beginning to embrace technology in attempts to engage our other senses and create more immersive brand experiences.

When comparing sectors that are competing for our disposable income, it’s apparent that retail is the fastest moving in terms of keeping up with technology and innovating customer experience. The restaurant, hospitality and travel sectors have all (for the large part) remained relatively static in terms of their offerings over the last 10 years. In retail, on the other hand, home grocery delivery, in-store digital display, click-and-collect, location-based marketing, NFC and beacons are just a handful of ongoing additions that have been invested in over the last few years. In-store sensory marketing could well be the next.

At its most basic level, products that are designed to heighten senses, such as food, perfume, candles or speakers, use sounds and smells to give customers an insight into the product before purchase (think food samples in supermarkets or perfume testers in department stores). The natural evolution from here is to use sensory triggers to strengthen brands and sell products that would not normally require anything other than sight or touch to convert a sale.

The development and building of layers to a brand in order to create deeper and more emotional connections with customers is done to create customers for life. There are decades of research into how visual stimuli affect shopping habits, and as sensory marketing becomes more commonplace, the data on how different smells or tastes affect shopping habits will build in complexity.

There are five senses that can be tapped into: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Without becoming too technical, these senses are directly linked to the limbic system of the brain that governs both memory and emotion. As you can imagine, both are vital to creating a connection between customer and brand. The more of these senses that retailers can manipulate in store, the better the chance of turning browsers into shoppers.

Sensory technology will be most effective for products and brands that are not normally able to deliver beyond visual messaging. Window displays, for example, are there to entice customers in store, but with the confines of glass frontage, retailers are normally limited to visual-only displays.

Bloomingdale’s flagship Christmas window in New York in 2015 broke the trend, being themed as the five senses of the holidays. Passers-by were treated to live music performances from singer Sara Bareilles and marching bands, instantly expanding the store’s reach beyond the line of sight, and down the street within hearing range. As people approached the store, a specially created ‘Bloomingdale’s scent’ was spritzed into the street, activating a second sense. Then finally, when people were in full view of the store, they could see the floral arrangements and mirrored Christmas sculptures that made up the window display. This multisensory approach creates a more immersive experience, expanding the Bloomingdale’s brand identity out onto the high street, beyond the footprint of the store.

It’s worth noting that sensory technology has been in existence for a while, with retailers such as Lush, Burberry, Nike and Hotel Chocolat pioneering its use. As far back as 2013, McCain Foods ran a campaign for its ready-bake frozen baked potato range. The scent of a cooked baked potato was created and housed in branded barkers that were attached to supermarket refrigerator doors. Customers were encouraged to push a button that released the scent, providing a sensation and insight into the product. Smell is an integral aspect in how something tastes, so giving customers a ‘sneak peek’ into the scent of the finished meal worked as a great persuader to purchase.

It may be an exciting avenue for retailers to take, but like any other in-store changes, it must be done in a well-thought out and measured fashion. Sensory experiences should surprise and delight customers, but always with the goal of converting sales or advancing a brand.

One hurdle that needs to be tackled is how best multiretailer department stores are able to integrate sensory functions into their marketing mix. With guardianship of many different brands and products, there can be a danger of diluting or mixing sales messages if different smells and sounds are being bombarded on customers from every direction. How this is handled will be interesting to see, but confined spaces such as customer lifts could be branded, with sensory devices installed, in order to open the areas up for marketing collateral.

Retailers have never had to work so hard to not only compete with one another, but also the leisure industry. Staying at the forefront of technology and spotting the ‘next big trend’ early can, and more often than not does, make the difference between earning a profit and failing to stay afloat. Whether or not in-store sensory marketing takes the industry by storm in 2016, only time will tell, but what is certain is that it provides another weapon in the arsenal for retailers and brands to create long-lasting and profitable connections with customers.

Click here to read more of Karl’s regular monthly column pieces in Retail Focus Magazine

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