An Otago University sensory scientist says smell plays a significant role in shopping behaviour and could mean the difference between a single purchase or splurging.
Professor Dr Mei Peng says research shows a background smell could affect a person's subconscious decision-making process, influencing mood and emotion at any point in time, affecting how we shop.
She said pleasant smells could lift a person's mood significantly, and in turn happier people tended to spend more.
The familiar smell of home could also be the reason why people tended to spend more shopping online from the comfort of home than they would in store, she said.
"If we're in a positive mood then we're more likely to buy, and our evaluation of the products will change as well - we'll like the products more compared to a situation where there is no smell present," Peng told the Herald.
"Pleasant smell can lift up people's mood significantly and that's because affection, the brain regions where affection is active is quite closely related to emotion sensors, so because of those close associations we believe that pleasant smells could really influence and give positive emotions."
What that meant for unpleasant smells was a shopper was more likely to leave a store and therefore not make a purchase.
Smell and emotion have a reciprocal relationship. As part of its latest broadband campaign, Telco 2degrees is raising awareness about the sense of smell and how it could affect our emotions and behaviour online in its TV advert with Rhys Darby.
Positive emotions affect all aspects of our behaviour so this was no surprise, Peng said, adding that smell also gave consumers a strong association with memory as well.
Peng, who has been a sensory scientist for more than 15 years, believes smell is an "under-appreciated sense" and its importance overlooked by many businesses.
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Most retailers were good at engaging visual and sound senses, such as big bright stores and music, but underestimated smell as a means to boost sales.
"A background smell will really work on our subconscious decision-making process so that could be relevant to shopping behaviour.
"The odour around us can influence our mood and emotion at that point in time and that possibly changes the way that we shop."
The affect of online shopping
Peng believes the familiar odour of home could be a reason why online shopping is increasingly in popularity, now accounting for approximately 11 per cent of all retail spend in this country.
She said most people associated a pleasant sensory experience with online shopping.
"People do enjoy the familiarity and the familiar environment with online shopping. Psychology research shows that familiarity gives us a relaxing perception and we'll be a lot more relaxed and comfortable to make decisions and I think that's the reason why online shopping has been taking off on top of as people's lives get busier and they don't have time to do physical shopping," said Peng.
The association of home and comfort could be the reason why people tended to spend more online at home than they would in the same store in person, she said.
"If I think of myself I think it is true but it's not based on research ... We have been looking at lots of fundamental research on a much simpler level," Peng said, adding that Otago University was looking to undertake specific research looking into the affects of smell on online shopping.
"Affection is a relatively hard sense to study - it is not as straightforward as hearing and taste - it is quite complicated from a physiological point of view, that's why there is a lack of understanding. Because of that lots of retailers don't have much information to utilise.
"I think in the future retailers - online and in physical stores - will have more information on how to use smell to help people with the shopping experience."
Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said smell played an important role in the sensory experience that is shopping and, as retailers were increasingly looking to enhance their in-store experiences, smell was something that many were considering.