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Laura Skelton

The Built Environment


David Smiley
Thesis Revision 1
10/25/05

Scent and Retail Design

My thesis will examine the role of artificial smell in the design of retail

environments. The history of scent in Western society reveals strong connections of odor

to magic and religious rite, and later to disease and decay. The odor of the city plays a

major part in the efforts of urban reformers to eliminate the disease-ridden "bad air" of

the city and to bring more fresh air to city dwellers. Throughout the 18th and 19th

centuries, efforts were made to deodorize the city to eliminate these odors. The ideal city

was seen as an odorless place. Although scent is one of the first ways that we connect

with architecture as children, we are quickly taught that it has no part in the visual/spatial

world of architecture. However, in our memories the idea of place is intimately connected

to scent, such as the odor of a spice market or of baking bread. In the past several years,

many companies have installed scent machines in their retail stores that influence

consumer behavior subliminally, convey brand identity through unique scent patterns,

and enhance the experience of products in a space through appropriate artificial scenting.

The reemergence of this multi-sensory architecture in the realm of retail is all the more

appropriate as a part of the feminine space of the retail environment, and signifies the

growing expectation of consumers to be engaged on multiple sensory levels by their

designed environments.

Historically, smell has been condemned in the consciousness of Western society.

In ancient times, smell had ties to religious rites of sacrifice, with incense being burned to
cover the scent of slaughtered animals. Malodorous qualities were linked with the occult,

and bad smells were tied to evil emotions and intentions. As early as the time of the

ancient Greeks, bad-smelling air or miasma was tied to disease, and bad smells were

actually thought to be the causes of illness and plague. Doctors would protect themselves

from disease by wearing perfumed sachets under their noses, since before the knowledge

of germs it was thought that smells were the carriers of disease. With the beginning of the

industrial revolution, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in urban centers led to

extreme problems with odors in the city. Efforts were made to deodorize the city through

paving streets and whitewashing walls. Ever since that time, dangerously bad odors have

been thought to emanate from the streets of the city, and so the ability to offer escapes

from the unhealthful city air was a selling point of indoor retail spaces.

Although it has in large part been overlooked by the Western architectural

tradition, scent has always played a part in architecture. The temples of Babylon had

perfumed oils in the mortar, so that they always smelled sweet. The materials of building

emit their own particular odors, or absorb odors, affecting the sensory qualities of the

spaces within. Scent has been tied to the identity of place in memory. The olfactory

qualities of particular places in the city, such as a street of cafes, florists, or the street

outside of a bakery, play a significant role in shaping our experience of place.

In recent years, scent has come to take a prominent role in retail design. Its status

as an emotional, as opposed to a rational, sense, allows retail designers to connect with

consumers on a deep instinctual level. Scent has come to take a place as an element of the

ambient design of a store, much as the choice of color for the walls. Companies infuse the

air of their stores with scents designed to subliminally influence consumer mood and
behavior, to reinforce the brand identity of the store, or to trigger certain connotations and

memories during the store experience. Studies have shown that scenting malls with

lavender or citrus induces shoppers to spend more money without their even being aware

of it. Similar tactics are at play in casino environments and restaurants. Companies hire

scent-marketing firms to create unique corporate identity smells, and then pump them

throughout their stores with scent machines. Other businesses use scent machines to

enhance the fantasy of the shopping experience with an added layer of artificially created

stimuli. Some toy and infant clothing stores scent their air with subtle baby-powder

smells, reminding consumers of the pleasantness of parenthood. The Hershey's store in

Times Square blasts shoppers with a faux chocolate scent to enrich the chocolate paradise

of their space. Some appliance stores use apple-pie scent machines to encourage

customers to dream of the wonderful things they could make with a deluxe new oven.

Kroger supermarkets enhance their bakery sections with fresh-baked cookie smells, and

their floral sections with flower smells, both from scent machines, creating an artificial

reality that's better than the real thing.

Traditionally, architecture in the Western tradition has been the deodorized,

sterile, ideal forms of masculine architecture, with its emphasis on geometry and the

visual over the experience of the other senses. From the time of Alberti, with his treatises

on buildings and on perspective representation, architecture has concerned itself with

form over materiality and tactile qualities. A building was conceived as an erected

geometrical form that viewed from a distance. Sensual architecture is connected to the

feminine interiors of domestic life. Subtle perfumes, tactile richness, and interiority are

all parts of this fragile architecture. The increased emphasis on smells in the retail world
reflects a shift from the visually oriented masculine architecture of the rationalistic

tradition to the multi-sensory architecture of the feminine realm. The world of shopping

is particularly suited to this feminine architecture, since in the modern tradition it has

always been a female realm. The connection of scent to a woman's perfume is strong in

the examples of clothing and cosmetics stores, which use ambient fragrance to entice and

to seduce. The connection to the woman's traditional domain of the kitchen and the hearth

is reflected in the supermarkets, food stores, and appliance stores' use of scent machines

to evoke feelings of hunger and memories of cooking and domesticity.

It seems that this emerging use of artificial ambient scents in retail environments

brings us full circle from the time of the ancients. In earlier times, scent was used to

define place, to give an aura of magic, and to create a sensual pleasure in architecture.

Then we entered a period of sanitization and deodorization, where retail environments

offered an odorless, air-conditioned escape from the stench of city streets. With the scent-

machines of modern retail design, the sensuality of olfactory pleasure is again allowed to

be a part of our architectural experience. However, instead of smelling true odors as in

the past, the scent architecture of today is a simulation. Though the stores are as sterilized

and deodorized as ever, they are artificially re-odorized with the intentional marketing

strategies of subliminal scents, brand identity scents, and mood-setting scents. Much as

we painstakingly scrub away the natural odors of our bodies, only to re-odorize ourselves

with scented shampoos and perfumes, retailers create an artificial sensuality to entice

their consumers, creating a realm of perfect fantasy in the controlled retail environment.
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