Shopping with Your Senses

January 11, 2019
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Physical Spaces

Picture this: You are strolling through the maze of outfitters, jewelry shops and pretzel stands that make up your local shopping mall—each storefront and speciality kiosk a hub of its own.

A Yankee Candle location radiates the warm scent of an apple pie baking in the oven. Bright lights and minimalist design beam from an Apple store that is filled with color coded tech-experts waiting to answer all your questions. Loud music and dim lighting in a Hollister store channel ‘California-cool,’ and the employees’ outfits mirror the mannequins.  

Whatever your taste may be, the elements that make you feel comfortable, intrigue, entertain and excite you will ultimately lead you to stay longer in that setting and whatever invokes the opposite will make you want to run the opposite way—just ask those dads waiting idly outside the PINK store.

An analysis on store atmospherics

From the moment a consumer arrives at a store, the emotions evoked by the look and feel of the physical space can increase or diminish purchase probability. The most distinctive and highly sought-after retail brands craft unique shopping experiences that attract customers and enhance their perception of the purchased goods.

Whether they notice or not, the average consumer’s shopping trips are filled with a multitude of sensory experiences. From sight and sound to yes, even smell, these senses tell the brain what they like and what they do not like about an experience—so there should be no surprise that these senses can ultimately influence a consumer’s purchasing decisions.

To make that connection, the atmospherics—or controlled characteristics—of a retail space must be aligned with whatever senses the consumer is hoping to engage. The exterior, interior layout, colors, lighting, temperature, music, aromas and textures can all impact a buyer’s emotional state, brand perception and, subsequently, their purchase behavior.

Atmospherics at play

Captivating shoppers’ emotions through storytelling is widely used by brands through advertising practices and some retailers have taken on the opportunity of incorporating it in stores. The organic and natural food grocery chain, Whole Foods Market, includes aspects of regional cities in its retail locations, such as a Detroit location that uses recycled materials from local scrap yards for store signs, and displays collages and murals by local artists. Whole Foods’ approach of emphasizing regional aspects in its visual interiors, along with its product offerings, focuses on the retail movement of ‘shopping local’ and appeals to consumers interested in that shopping experience.

Anthropologie, a retailer offering women’s clothing, accessories and home décor, is “designed to replicate a flea market, with candles placed next to doorknobs, which are next to dresses… [it] is designed like more of a discovery trail…and [takes the shopper on] a geographical excursion around the world” (Crain’s). Anthropologie knows its target market and distinguishes its brand by designing stores that keep consumers engaged through a unique shopping experience.

The Anthropologie store in Chelsea Market, NYC Credit: Julia Raymond for RETHINK Retail

Although primarily a brand in the financial sector, Capital One has delved into the retail and food and beverage sectors of commerce in recent years through its implementation of Capital One Cafés. The millennial generation, currently the largest share of the U.S. workforce, is increasingly relying on technology and fintech startups to manage their money—and Capital One has caught on. Its ‘cafés’ demonstrate ambitious efforts to target millennials through the use of atmospherics to ultimately shift brand perception and create brand loyalty. In Glendale, California, Capital One partnered with Peet's Coffee, a Bay-Area coffee roaster and retailer, to prepare and sell beverages and snacks in each café alongside ample seating areas, conference rooms and free Wi-Fi.

The millennial generation, currently the largest share of the U.S. workforce, is increasingly relying on technology and fintech startups to manage their money—and Capital One has caught on.

In late 2018, global retail giant Ikea announced plans to open around 30 stores in urban city-centers with a more compact concept than its traditional, warehouse-type layouts. The experiential aspect of shopping will take center stage as the new locations will focus only on mock-ups of homes displaying the products. Ikea has a distinct, and some might call ‘iconic’, store design that is uniform in any location in the world— but shifting to accommodate to the needs of consumers in smaller city-centers demonstrates the brand’s ability to evolve as consumers evolve and provide the best customer experiences possible.

The next level of store atmospherics

As with all elements of retail marketing, the coexistence of the digital and physical worlds increasingly impacts store atmospherics with each new technological advancement. To this end, atmospherics are also evolving with consumers’ expectations to have every element tailored to their shopping habits. With the use of apps, rewards and loyalty programs, and by staying current with modern technology, brands can heighten their interactions with consumers during the in-store experience.

Technology allows brands the advantage to stand out in a department store through interaction, such as Calvin Klein’s digital fitting guide inside Macy’s stores. Retail brand can also build trust in consumers through technology that offers expert advice and demonstrates its care for consumers’ needs, like Sephora’s in-store Skin Tone IG which scans customers' skin, then uses a digital display to virtually showcase their most complimentary makeup combinations.

Brick-and-mortar locations are also incorporating mobile elements to the shopping experience, thus making the physical location simply supplemental to the overall customer experience. When a customer sets foot into a store, the interactions and transactions they come across may be personalized with technology that reads their consumer profiles in order to focus on their preferences and deduce their expectations.

Nike has combined the advantages of physical and online stores to create consumer shopping experiences that blend the best of both worlds. According to Salesforce, 71 percent of shoppers use their phones while in stores to read product reviews, compare prices, navigate aisles, search for gift inspiration or pay. Through the use of mobile technology, Nike is able to offer ‘brick-and-mobile’ experiences to its visitors, including “streamlined service and extra product information at the tap of a screen, along with certain benefits that online simply can't, such as touching and trying on items or the instant gratification of bringing purchases home right away.”

Nike is able to offer ‘brick-and-mobile’ experiences to its visitors


Aside from prioritizing your consumers’ sensory experience when planning out and executing store design and ambiance, it is important to think of how today’s technology can enhance it. At the end of the day, the right practices in atmospherics are crucial to bring customers in to your store and, more importantly, to stay in your store.

By NATALIE ARANA | Contributing Writer

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