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While brick-and-mortar retailers wring their hands about the sad state of affairs in physical retail, they may be overlooking the most powerful competitive weapon at their disposal and one that e-commerce retailers cannot replicate: their ability to engage shoppers’ human dimension through their five senses.

Shedding light on the power of multi-sensory engagement in retail are assistant professor Miralem Helmefalk and Bertil Hultén, Ph.D. at Linneaus University in Sweden. In an article published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumers Services, they write, “For retailers, a visually dominant store atmosphere should be designed more in the direction of a multi-sensory atmosphere in offering shoppers more appealing experiences of the retail setting.”

They cite research that demonstrates “a positive effect of multi-sensory congruent cues on shoppers’ emotions, through valence and purchase behavior, through time spent in the store and purchase.”

In plain English, shoppers engaged through all five senses in the store spend more time there and are more likely to make purchases.

Brick-and-mortar retailers need to do more

Today In: Consumer

With the rapid encroachment of digital e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retailers desperately need more effective tools to compete in the physical world. The bad news in physical retail is undeniable. For example, 7,567 national retail stores have closed so far this year with the final tally expected to reach 12,000 by year end.

And even more alarming, UBS predicts that with each percentage point market share rise in online retail, some 8,000-8,500 stores will need to close. As it stands, e-commerce holds a 16% market share and it is expected to rise to 25% by 2026. UBS expects upwards of 75,000 stores will be forced out of business by then. While estimates ofAmazon’s share of e-commerce retail vary, closer to 40% than 50%, it still is wielding the biggest hammer to physical retail’s coffin.

E-commerce retailers can’t do what brick-and-mortar retailers can

Unfortunately too few retailers are effectively using the power of multi-sensory experiences at retail, believes Darren Coleman, founder of Wavelength Marketing and author of Building Brand Experiences: A Practical Guide to Retaining Brand Relevance. “Retailers would benefit from building brand experiences with all our senses in mind,” he shared with me.

With a Ph.D. in branding and as a guest lecturer in corporate brand management at the University of Warwick, Coleman comes bearing plenty of footnotes to back up his opinions.

“I have racked my brain to think of a retailer that has managed to orchestrate all of the senses in a truly unique and personalized way. Not one retail brand has cracked it. So the good news is there’s an opportunity there. But I don’t know of anyone that has found the right cocktail,” he says.

Rather than hitting on all five-sensory cylinders, retailers have tended to focus on one, like the visual, or two, adding scent or music, while ignoring the potential of telling a cohesive brand story with all five senses.

“Senior executives become a bit like a kid in a candy store when they realize its potential. Then they dive head first into using sound or scent without considering how they’re relevant to their brand,” he says. “The result is disjointed and inconsistent experiences that customers struggle to connect with.”

Retailers need to take a step back, get above the fray, and assess what their brand ultimately means and how they can communicate that consistently across all five senses. Such messaging can cement the brand in customers’ memories because brands operate in the emotional space.

“The key is to build multi-sensory experiences in retail that trigger an emotional response before the conscious, cognitive and rational parts of the brain kicks in,” Coleman says, as he takes me on a tour of retail brands that are taking a multi-sensory approach.


The visual sense is by far the one that retailers activate most frequently in terms of design, color, style and lighting. But it may still be used ineffectively if the visual cues and clues in the store are not tuned to the ones that will engage the customers most effectively.

Coleman points to Versace that uses bright and bold colors to maximum effect “to convey their ostentatious, confident and extroverted personality,” as compared to Armani, which embraces “a more refined, understated and timeless approach.”

The visual cues and clues of jewelers Hearts on Fire and Tiffany and Company stores right across the way in the King of Prussia Mall couldn’t be more contrasting. Hearts on Fire is dark and mysterious with spotlights aimed at wall-mounted display cases that enhance the diamond’s sparkle and fire.

Tiffany uses standard table height glass cases with bright lighting throughout. But then, when paying thousands of dollars for a diamond ring, maybe it is better to have all the lights on, so customers don’t feel like they are being conned.

One of the more important visual cues that too many retailers ignore is when too many products are on display. Too much product detracts, rather than enhances the shoppers’ experience and creates a cacophony of visual noise which only adds to the paradox of choice.

Retailers would be better served by judicious editing to give shoppers something to really look at and enjoy. In addition, products that are displayed too closely together tend to be overlooked unless the customer is engaged to touch the product too.

“The consistency of visual execution is key and this can be seen in brands from product design, visual merchandising through to the overall store experience,” Coleman advises.


The tactile experience of shopping–to touch, feel and try on–is a tremendous draw for customers. About 50% of consumers are turned off to online shopping because they can’t do that. And it certainly contributes to the large number of returns e-commerce retailers face.

Further the more people touch products while shopping the more likely they are to buy and spend more money when doing it. The psychology behind it is called the “endowment effect,” whereby people value things more that they own and touching a product in the store tends to make them feel that sense of ownership.

Not only that, but touching something can activate other senses in the shopping experience. The touch and feel of an iconic Coca Cola bottle brings the taste of Coke to mind. Similarly, the body-shaped bottle of Jean Paul Gaultier perfume invites touch as it consistently fits the personality of this sensual, highly-sexualized brand. Once in hand, a spritz of the cologne on the wrist seals the deal by activating the sense of smell.


“Smell is the only sense that has a direct line to your brain’s limbic system,” Coleman shares. “That’s important because the limbic system deals with long-term memory and emotion. Brands rely on memories associated with an emotion we feel and this is why scent is so significant when you build brand experiences.”

Starbucks is a case in point. Back in 2007 Howard Schultz realizedone of the reasons Starbucks’ sales were slipping was caused by the loss of the powerful coffee aroma in the stores due to a shift toward sealed packaged coffee and automated espresso machines.

“I believe we overlooked the cause and the effect of flavor lock in our stores. But at what cost? The loss of aroma — perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage,” Schultz wrote.

And shortly Starbucks will be further activating scent as it welcomes fall with the evocative pumpkin spice scent wafting through the stores.

“The use of fragrance allows retailers to create a branded experience which intuitively tells their brand story,” explains Logan Andres, director of products and marketing at ScentAir, a company that provides scent marketing services to retailers such as Under Armour, Ashley Furniture and Piaget.

“If you want customers to become endeared to your store, you have to give them something they can connect with to remember. Scent gives customers this connection,” Andres says.


The right music in-store also influences memory, emotion and movement. “One study identified how ‘pulse and tonality’ of music activates wide networks in the brain, including the limbic system tied to memory and emotion,” Coleman says.

He points to Wrangler jeans activating positive feelings associated with its country-music roots by teaming up with Universal Music Group Nashville to feature music videos in store.

Another brand strategically activating sound is Burberry. Its Burberry Acoustic service allows up-and-coming bands to share their music online or in Burberry stores. “This supports Burberry’s positioning which is increasingly aimed at the well-heeled members of the Millennial generation,” he shares.

For retailers to use sonic branding effectively they need to think beyond random sound tracks chosen by the store manager in the morning and create a symphony of sound that captures the heart and soul of the brand.

The power of analog connection in a digital world

In summing up the opportunities in activating all five senses in the retail experience, Coleman advises that retailers need a firm fix on what their brand experience and message is in order to have a solid base for building multi-sensory experiences. He further cautions not to go “multi-sensory mad,” but to pilot, test and iterate first, then use learnings to implement multi-sensory experiences at scale.

And finally, he stresses the need to think holistically. “The true magic happens when you build brand experiences that orchestrate multi-sensory cues that appeal to a number of senses. The results will be compelling retail experiences which deliver differential value that will be hard for your competitors to emulate, and most especially the digital ones” he concludes.

As people increasingly engage in the world digitally, they are hungry for what Canvas Worldwide’s Paul Woolmington calls analog connection.

“Digital doesn’t address our emotional needs. Digital meets our more rational needs—it’s faster and easier and lets us keep more control—but as human beings we need our emotional beings satisfied, and obviously that need isn’t being met by our digital experiences. Therefore, in order to balance that, we’re seeking the analog more than ever,” Woolmington states and I couldn’t agree more.

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