With today's consumers all but immune to the elaborate visual displays long used to entice them into the shopping environment, retailers are beginning to incorporate into their merchandising tactics a technology that taps into the most visceral, and primordial, of all the senses: our sense of smell.
Orlando, Fla.-based Fragrance Technologies has developed a series of compact, precision dispensers that deliver into the air aromas ranging from jasmine and gardenias to cinnamon buns and sugar cookies to -- if the user so desires -- sulfurous volcano and dinosaur breath.
The product is called Smell Blitz!, and the inventor is David Martin, a researcher who previously designed composite aircraft structures for Lockheed in California.
"Smell is a powerful tool that in the past we have been unable to exploit for the simple reason that no one had come up with an effective way to control it," he says. "As far back as the 1950s, when we first began recognizing the powerful illusion of realism that our sense of smell provides, there were attempts to incorporate smells into theater shows.
"But there were a couple of big technical problems," Martin continues. "One, once you introduce the first smell, you have to somehow get rid of that smell before you can introduce the second one. And two, the smells over time began to mingle, producing a very unpleasant odor within the theaters that was extremely hard to get rid of." So bad was the residual stench in some cases that theater owners actually had to rip out seats and replace them with new ones because people were refusing to enter the theaters.
But Smell Blitz! differs from the machines of old. First, since it emits a dry, evaporated fragrance, the possibility of bad odor buildup is eliminated. If the machine is placed in one room, the aroma will remain in that room unless a strong air current is coming from another room. In addition, its cycle timer and adjustment mechanism ensure that the aroma will never become too overpowering.
Of particular note to the retail environment, the fragrance can be detected from 10 to 20 feet away from wherever the machine is placed, so shoppers can literally "follow their nose" into the beckoning shop or store.
Disney's Days of Christmas purchased a unit to use in its Lake Buena Vista, Fla., store. The store, which is open year-round, features holiday-themed merchandise and a selection of Christmas trees displayed throughout. The machine was situated so as to disperse the smell of evergreens and spiced cider around the trees. Says Martin, "It might be July in Florida -- but when you walk into that shop, you're right there, in Christmas."
The customers seem to agree. As an experiment, the store's manager was asked to keep a record of comments about the machine over a two-week period. "We got more than 200 requests from people saying they really, really liked the fragrance and wanting to know where they could buy a machine for their home," says Joy Ensminger, a guest service representative for Disney's Days of Christmas. Martin is currently working on a machine that the store could sell to its customers for home use.
Using a machine that dispenses the fragrance of oranges, Martin and wife Janice, who handles the marketing end of the business, have gotten a similar response at trade shows. "You can watch people as they walk along," Janice Martin reports. "All of a sudden, they come to a stop with this glazed look on their face. ... Just by using the scent of oranges, we are able to bring customers to us."
Victoria's Secret has contracted with the company for an electric perfume sampler that issues a selection of its signature fragrance at the push of a button. "If you ask salespeople at cosmetic counters how many perfumes customers generally test, most of them will tell you that they test one or two before getting distracted and moving on," she says.
With the Fragrance Technology sampler, however, the perfume is dispensed in an evaporative form. "So you're not penalized by having to wear a smell you might not like," she says, adding that the perfume tester's push-button technology makes it well-suited for use in kiosks.
There have been other applications as well. Fragrance Technologies recently worked with Ford Motor Co. on a plant tour simulating automobile production. "They were really excited about the smells because that was the one aspect that previously had been missing," Janice Martin says. The tour, which traces the production process from inception to completion, incorporates four fragrances: oily machinery; leather; paint; and fresh air, for when the car is actually driven off the assembly line and into the outdoors.
And for Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., the company provided jungle smells for the Edge of Africa area, as well as a wood-fire aroma at campsites.
David Martin explains that smell is the one sense directly tied to our recollections of the past -- we are "hard-wired" to smell, so it involves no cognitive memory. Thus, it's hardly surprising that we react as strongly as we do to smell. "If you look at the history of advertising, the visual side has been exploited to its extreme," he says. "In audio advertising as well, we are very sophisticated and jaded. But when it comes to our sense of smell, we're all still in kindergarten."
Often, for example, we sing the praises of a particular food without realizing that we're in fact responding to its smell, not its taste. "That's because we can really only taste foods that are sweet, sour, bitter or salty," he says. "If it's not one of those four, then it is your nose working for you."
He notes that, in today's fast-paced society, where practically everything is stuck in the microwave and eaten on the run, a viable market exists for home-cooked smells. "Food vendors especially want their customers to think their products are so good that they just naturally emmanate this wonderful smell," he says.
Smell Blitz! food fragrances run the gamut, with no shortage of selection: from Pizza #1 (good, spicy notes), Pizza #2 (better rendition) and Pizza #3 (best rendition), to grilled onions, buttered popcorn and barbecue ribs.
Janice Martin notes that the most significant benefit of fragrance technology is perhaps the simplest: If something smells nice and makes you feel good, whatever the experience, you're simply going to enjoy it more. "Fragrance technology not only enhances the shopping experience but actually adds another dimension," she says. "It's almost like introducing a car into the marketplace when, in the past, everybody has been riding a horse."