RichardWeening, headshotby Richard Weening, CEO, Prolitec Inc.

A properly designed and merchandised toy store is a feast for the senses—a place where bright colors, lively graphics, and upbeat music enhance the delightful atmosphere already created by the imaginative products themselves. And yet in most stores, arguably the most important of the five senses—the sense of smell—is underutilized or ignored. Until recently, using scent in a retail environment was very difficult, as the normal sources of scent in the home will not work in a commercial setting.

The challenge of finding the right broadly appealing scent and diffusing it in a store for a uniform and pleasant effect has ranged from huge hassle to impossible. But new technology makes it possible to harness the power of scent to play its rightful and major role in the customer experience. Today, it is practical to enhance the natural themes, colors, graphics, and energy of a toy store with the light touch of a uniformly distributed, complementary scent.

Everything smells like something. Even the most aggressively maintained store cannot remove the odors of plastic and packaging. Taking control of the in-store scent environment is a natural opportunity for toy retailers to significantly enhance the customer experience. After all, scientists who study the effects of scent on human behavior continue to report remarkable results. Research shows the mere presence of a pleasant scent in a store can cause visitors to feel better served by associates and perceive higher value in products.

Do you want your customers to feel less hurried as they wait in the checkout line during the jam-packed holidays? One European retailer diffused a carefully chosen ambient scent in its checkout areas, and found this indeed contributed to a sense of time-compression among shoppers in the space. It’s non-controversial to assert that we humans prefer spaces that smell good over ones that don’t. We want to leave stinky places, and we will stay longer in ones that smell great. Time passes more quickly when the environment is pleasant.

Lavender,stockpicScent is processed in the same part of the brain that handles our emotions, memory, and creativity. Our sense of smell is extraordinarily sensitive. Indeed, researchers now believe humans can distinguish more than 10,000 different aromas. However, there is a well-understood art and science to “getting scent right” in retail environments. Just as inadequate understanding of the principles of merchandising can lead to visual clutter that confuses customers, it is possible to employ ambient scenting in ways that run at cross purposes to your goals. Flooding a space with too much scent may actually reduce the time your customers spend in the store, while a properly scented store will cause customers to linger longer. While some fragrances are soothing and relaxing to the point of putting people to sleep—in one Duke University study, the scent of lavender relaxed the subjects every bit as much as a physical massage—others make people feel energized or spur strong associations with cleanliness.

As you contemplate the potential of scent in your store, the first step is to consider your objectives. Look at precisely what you want to accomplish. Generally speaking, the term ambient scenting refers to the automated and controlled diffusion of a uniformly distributed scent throughout a space. The simplest or most basic objective is to use scent to enhance the in-store customer experience by just making the store smell great.

Scents can be changed seasonally. They can be used to complement a visual theme. Some stores want to make scent part of their brand by using the same scent year-round, so the customer develops a positive association between the scent and the store. This is called a signature scent, or a scent logo. Using scent in the air to sample and promote a product is another important use. Once the objective is decided, the next step is choosing the scent or scents to be used. There are some fragrances that can enhance the lively and fun theme of a store, and in tandem with this, the fragrance effect can accomplish additional goals, such as controlling malodors. Let’s say a profusion of painted vinyl and plastic products—imported beach balls, toys, and the like—is causing a strong malodor around a particular aisle or aisles, or a neighboring store or restaurant is emitting an odor that detracts from your store environment. Today’s stores do not have to just cover up bad smells by overwhelming them with a stronger fragrance. Specific odor-neutralizing agents can be incorporated into scent formulations to provide more control over the olfactory environment.

No retail chain evaluates the appearance of its websites, logos, signage, and other important visual cues in a strategic vacuum. Rather, the norm is to make sure all color and design choices match your brand attributes and objectives. Likewise, it is important for store owners or executives to understand the primary colors of ambient scenting—otherwise known as the six scent families—so that they fully understand the likeliest emotional and cognitive effects of fragrances used in the store.

Citrus picFor example, fruity fragrances are bright, uplifting, often youthful, and tend to be anxiety reducing as well. They are possibly the most popular of the six scent families, and happen to be perfect for toy stores. Examples include peach, apple, pear, plum, apricot, and many more.

If you want to create a rejuvenating and stimulating, high-energy feel, you could turn to the citrus family, which includes lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, grapefruit, bergamot, and clementine, among others. Citrus scents are often described as crisp and clean. They can be used to enhance a sense of cleanliness, which makes them an excellent choice for children’s play areas. By contrast, floral scents such as rose, jasmine, gardenia, orange blossoms, and violet are often most appropriate for the likes of upscale fashion boutiques and jewelry stores. In a toy store setting, florals could be used to enhance a baroque display of girls’ tea sets and finery.

Let’s say the goal is to transform a section of the store into a seasonal display designed to get shoppers excited about a spring or summer line of outdoor-oriented sporting products, such as badminton sets or lawn darts. The outdoorsy scent family—which includes woodsy notes, such as pine and cedar; green notes, such as fresh green grass and mint; and herbal notes of basil and sage—could work well. Outdoorsy scents are characterized as refreshing, clean, and nature-inspired.

For its part, the ozonic family could be likened to the scent in the air after a thunderstorm. It is usually described as airy and fresh, subtle and light. Ozonic fragrances are often used in small spaces, perhaps to reinforce the impression of a fresh, breezy, and open atmosphere. They are also ideal for spaces that have competing scents due to a variety of scented products for sale. The ozonic family happens to lend itself to creativity and flexibility, so a subtle, ozonic scent could enliven, say, the video game area in a big-box toy store. Don’t worry, “ozonic” does not mean there is any ozone. It just smells like ozone.

Lastly, gourmand aromas such as coffee and chocolate are designed to convey the scent dimensions of foods, and can work well to supplement specific product displays. The scent of bubble gum, for example, could be used to enhance a display of back-to-school backpacks for girls, while chocolate chip cookie would be a hit with all kids (and possibly grown-ups, too).

After choosing the right fragrance for your strategic goals, the next step is to tackle the technology piece. Let’s say your aim is to suffuse the store’s checkout area with the subtle and pleasant scent of chocolate. How will you avoid either overdoing or under-doing the scent effect? Years ago, some retailers literally dispatched employees out onto the floor with spray bottles full of strong fragrance—not exactly a scientific or efficient approach.

Aroma,stockpicToday, hi-tech, computer-controlled scent-delivery systems working from the wall or through your HVAC system allow stores to control scent intensities, in much the same way that employees can dial the volume of in-store music up or down. By employing an HVAC-integrated system, you can disperse and control scent throughout the entire store. Wall-mounted units, meanwhile, can be used to create scent effects in subsections of the toy store (a “welcoming effect” at the entrance is an example), and small tabletop units can be used to scent rooms or product displays.

For those stores that haven’t yet taken the plunge, ambient scenting represents an untapped opportunity to take control of the most memorable characteristic of the in-store environment, harness the primal power of smell, and significantly enhance the customer’s experience. The key is to get it right from the beginning by taking an informed approach.

Richard Weening is the CEO of scent-marketing and ambient-scenting firm Prolitec Inc. Prolitec’s AirQ Atmospheres service can be found in over 75,000 locations in the U.S. and 80 countries. Richard can be reached at