Always follow your nose: The influence of active smelling on purchase decisions


Does our sense of smell influence our buying behavior? Yes – at least for people with a high “need for smell.” A study carried out at WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) has shed more light on the role the nose plays when shopping.

When you pick up a new book, do you bury your nose in it to catch a whiff of the pages? When you go shopping for clothes, do you smell them before you try them on? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you belong to a group that has received little attention from consumer research so far: people who rely on their nose when shopping.

“In evolutionary terms, our sense of smell is very primal,” explains Monika Koller from the WU Institute for Marketing & Consumer Research, “on the one hand, animals use it to detect danger, such as spoiled food. On the other hand, it has an important emotional function: Good smells are fun, evoke memories, and contribute to our sense of well-being.”     

It is therefore all the more surprising that active smelling has received so little attention in research to date. To change this, Monika Koller and her international research team have developed the ENFAS scale: This abbreviation stands for “Evaluation of the Need for Active Smell” – and people who score highly on this scale are relying on their sense of smell when shopping.

Smell = danger + pleasure

Using observations, interviews, and surveys in Austria, Germany, the UK, and the USA, the research team investigated in what shopping scenarios people trust their sense of smell – and why: “When we smell new books, for example, it’s not about judging the quality of the print but about a hedonic experience. Many people simply like the smell of new books,” explains Monika Koller from WU. “In contrast, smelling clothes helps us to assess the material and decide whether we want to wear it on our skin.”  

To find out what role these two functions of smelling play when shopping, the researchers developed a questionnaire. It contains statements such as “When I smell a product, it helps me judge its quality” or “The way products smell influences my mood.” Anyone who largely agrees with these eleven statements belongs to the group with a high “need for smell,” which makes up around a third of the population. It is interesting to note that women are more highly represented in this group than men – especially when it comes to the pleasure component of smelling.

Another result of the study: People for whom smelling products is important usually also attach great importance to their sense of touch when shopping. For Monika Koller, this makes a lot of sense: “Most people pick up fruit and vegetables first and then bring them up to their nose.” So it’s no wonder that the senses of touch and smell are connected.  

A chance for brick-and-mortar shops to nose ahead of the competition?

The results show that some companies in the brick-and-mortar retail sector would be well advised to appeal more to the sense of smell. This is because people with a high “need for smell” are less likely to buy clothes or other products online. And they also prefer to buy unpackaged food, for example.

“Focusing on the sense of smell during the shopping experience would open up new opportunities for brick-and-mortar retailers in particular,” says Monika Koller, “and in a highly competitive market with tight profit margins, this could be a decisive advantage.”

Detailed research results and further information
Koller, M., Salzberger, T., Floh, A., Zauner, A., Sääksjärvi, M., & Schifferstein, H. N. J. (2023). Measuring individual differences in active smelling to evaluate products – The ENFAS-Instrument. Food Quality and Preference, 110.
Link to the study

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