Do You Smell What I Smell?

December 7, 2012

According to a scientific study I heard about third-hand people will spend more money in stores that have certain scents in the air. Vanilla and orange seem to be the smells most likely to make people fork over their cash, so if you ever get home and wonder why you bought a digital banana extruder think back and see if you noticed the store was unusually citrusy, or smelled like they were baking cakes under the cash registers. I don’t know when exactly this study was conducted, and they may have even tried to keep the findings under wraps. I remember several years ago when there was a minor panic over subliminal messages being used as advertising. People thought it was mind control, although, technically, that’s all advertising is. It’s a very sophisticated form of mind control.

Or maybe it’s not that sophisticated. Sometimes advertisers seem to come up with exceptionally bad ideas, like putting ads for candy bars on fuel pumps, because there’s nothing like the smell of gasoline to give you a craving for chocolate and caramel. It’s no accident, though, that when psychology was still a nascent field advertisers took an interest. The psychologist B.F. Skinner worked contributed to the advertising industry, although the psychologist who’s had the most lasting impact is definitely Freud. No matter what the ad is selling a cigar is never just a cigar, but that’s another story. And it’s not just advertising. Stores will also employ elaborate tricks, although I guess that’s also a kind of advertising since it’s all about selling. And we’ve been so brainwashed into thinking a sale means we’re getting a good deal people will buy almost anything that’s marked down. I had an aunt who bought an escalator.

Then there’s the whole array of impulse buys at the cash register, which was a brilliant idea. Stores took the one place where we want to spend the smallest amount of time-the checkout line-and have turned it into a mini shopping area all its own. There have been too many times when I’ve been waiting for the person ahead of me to check out and have taken the opportunity to get a self-tattooing kit, a dry ice maker, and a TV screen repair kit. And I’ve bought some stupid things too. What I never can figure out is why every store in the universe now has to have a selection of miniature gourmet chocolates right at the checkout. Stores that don’t even sell anything even remotely close to food will still have a wide variety of chocolates. And who buys these? I see them in the big hardware stores, and I wonder if some construction foreman ever comes in and says, "I need two square miles of plywood, a quarter inch of drywall, and, ooh! Raspberry truffles! The boys down at the job site love those."

I also find it interesting that grocery stores sell little recipe books at the checkout. It seems like they’re missing a real opportunity there, and they should be selling recipe books at the entrance. I know I’ve bought one of those little recipe books, thinking, hey, that asparagus-artichoke-aardvark torta looks pretty good and easy, only to get home and realize that I didn’t buy anything I need to make it, so I throw it away, thinking, yeah, I’ll never cook that crap anyway. If they sold the recipe books at the entrance customers would spend more money buying all the ingredients they need before going home and throwing it all away because, really, no one’s gonna cook that crap anyway. Although selling magazines at the checkout does make sense. It gives you something to read while you’re waiting for the ninety-eight year old woman in line in front of you to bag her own groceries because she has a special way of doing it, and then you get so engrossed in the article about what life is like in exotic and remote places like Kansas that you feel you have to buy the magazine. And it’s interesting seeing what magazines people buy. I’ve seen men in business suits buying issues of Cosmopolitan, maybe because they think their wife really will read that article about three-hundred new ways to dutifully serve her husband without laughing, or maybe they’re just too embarrassed to buy real porn. And I’ve seen harried women with litters of children pick up issues of The Economist, maybe because they’re desperate for news from the adult world.

And yet I’ve never seen anyone buy an Archie comic. I’ve never even known anyone who has ever been given an Archie comic that someone else has purchased for them. Why do they even keep making them? Aren’t our landfills overstuffed enough without every single issue of every single Archie comic being packed up and dropped into them every week? Okay, I might actually buy the new issue with George Takei in it, but it would be the first and only one, which raises the question of how Archie comics have managed to live this long and prosper. Anyway, what I intended to say was that I think it’s absurd to believe that the smell of orange or vanilla makes people more willing to purchase things, although the more I think about it the more willing I am to buy it. Hey, is that a cake baking?

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