This story first appeared in the April 1993 edition of 3–2–1 Contact, a publication of the Children’s Television Workshop. It has since been published in a variety of English language workbooks around the world, earning well over $30K in 27 years.
You’re standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, searching for your favorite brand. Suddenly, you catch a whiff of — Mmmm! — chocolate-chip cookies. Your mouth begins to water. You forget about cereal and head for the bakery section.
Guess what? You just walked into a trap — an odor trap. The yummy smell was fake. The odor was cooked up by scientists in a lab, then spread by the store’s owners to lure you to the bakery section.
Unfair, you say? Then read on as CONTACT sniffs out the story.
Dollars and scents
For years scientists have been studying the special powers of smells. It seems that our noses and brains are very closely connected. When you smell something, the odor goes up your nose to smelling zones. From here, sense cells send nerve messages to your brain telling it what you smelled.
More than our other four senses, our sense of smell changes our mood and helps us remember things. If you were told to think about popcorn, you’d probably recall its smell. And then you might remember a movie you saw while eating it. Our sense of smell also helps us sniff out danger — like the smell of smoke. And it can make your mouth water from just one whiff of food.
If smell is so powerful, say store owners, then maybe it can also sell products. So businesses have begun spending thousands of dollars to scent entire stores. Fake scents are being used to lead customers by the nose. These bogus odors help to get people inside and put them in the mood to buy. They even make customers remember the store later so they’ll come back for more.
Some businesspeople predict that in 10 years, store smells will be as common as soft music stores often play to put shoppers in a good mood.
Hidden pellets and goo
J’Amy Owens designs stores for a living To keep up with the new trend in store odors, she recently began including “fragrance planning” as part of her store design. She believes each store should have its own special smell.
For a kids’ clothing store in San Francisco, CA, for example, she’s using the smell of cinnamon and hot apple spice. She hopes shoppers will end up thinking these kids' clothes are as American as apple pie.
Sometimes J’Amy gets some pretty weird requests. “The owner of a fast-food restaurant wanted to know if I could scent the speaker at the drive-up window,” she says.
J’Amy spreads the store scents secretly, using little balls soaked in fragrance, She hides them in light fixtures and heating pipes. If that doesn’t give off enough odor, she puts in a small heater. This warms up the scented goo. A fan then spreads this smell throughout the store.
Other stores use computer-controlled machines to carry the smell out through the store’s air vents. Getting the right amount of odor can be tricky. When Steven Schultz first started using peach fragrance in his discount store in Louisville, KY, the whole place ended smelling like a peach warehouse.
Something smells fishy
Dr. Alan Hirsch designs smells for businesses. He says that it doesn’t take a whole lot of smell to affect you. Store owners can lure you to the candy aisle — even if you don't realize you are smelling candy. This idea scares a lot of people. Groups to protect the rights of shoppers are upset. They say the stores are using a kind of brain-washing, which they call “smell-washing.”
“It’s pretty sleazy,” says Mark Silbergeld. He runs an organization that checks out products for consumers.
The scientists hired to design the scents disagree. “There’s mellow background music, there’s neon lighting, there are all sorts of bells and jingles being used,” says Dr. Hirsch. “Why not smells?”
One reason why not, says Silbergeld, is that some people are allergic to scents pumped into products or stores.
But there’s a whole other side to this debate. Do the smells really work? So far, there is little proof one way or the other. But Dr. Hirsch has run some interesting experiments.
In one of Hirsch’s experiments, 31 volunteers were led into a sneaker store that smelled slightly like flowers. Later, another group shopped in the same store, but with no flower odor.
Dr. Hirsch found that 84 percent of the shoppers were more likely to buy the sneakers in the flower-scented room. But Hirsch found something even stranger.
“Whether volunteers liked the flower scent or not didn’t matter,” Hirsch says. “Some reported that they hated the smell. But they were still more likely to buy the shoes in the scented room.”
Who nose the future?
Using smells to sell products isn’t new. In 1966, a company added lemon fragrance to its dish detergent. They wanted people to think the soap contained “natural” cleaners. It worked. Today, businesses spend over a billion dollars a year just on product odor.
Some companies have already discovered ways to make microwaveable foods smell good before they’re cooked. They scent the packages. Smell for yourself. Next time you pop a bag of microwave popcorn, smell the bag before you put it in the microwave. Chances are, it already smells like popped corn.
New uses for smells are being created every day. One bank, for example, gives customers coupons advertising car loans. To get people to take out a loan, bank officials hope to coat these coupons with the fresh smell of a new car.
In Australia, companies are putting sweat odor on unpaid bills. Since some people sweat when they are scared, this smell might remind them of when they were frightened. And they will pay the bills right away.
What lies ahead for our noses? Smell scientists are working on some pretty far-out ideas. Would you believe TV sets that produce smells? Or how about odor diets? Certain food smells will fool your stomach into thinking it’s full.
Alarm clocks will scent your bedroom with an aroma designed to wake you up. Scientists are even working on ways to keep garbage from stinking. Researchers expect scents to one day help students make more sense of what they are learning.
And just think. Someday soon, even your homework may smell nice.
How to make a smell work for you
Smell scientists say smells can help us in all sorts of ways. Here are a few tips from the experts:
- To help you sleep, scent the area around your bed with lavender or vanilla. These aromas will help make you feel more relaxed and drowsier.
- To help you keep awake in class, take along something scented with peppermint to sniff. It’s been shown to make people more alert.
- To help you remember what you studied last night, assign a different pleasing fragrance to each subject. (fruit-scented markers and erasers are perfect for this.) Take a sniff or two of the aroma while you study then again in class.