Attract Versus Repel

Does your store have an “ick factor”?

The dreaded “ick factor” is a silent killer of sales. Rarely will a person come into your spa store and exclaim, “Wow, this place is just awful!” What they will do is buy what they came in for and find another place to shop in the future. If you’re the only place for miles around and it’s a choice of shopping at your place or online, they may switch to online if it’s more pleasant than coming into your store.

We humans are mammals, a species of animal. Complicated ones, to be sure, but still just animals. As such, we have unconscious reactions to anything that doesn’t feel safe or comfortable. When an animal enters a space, their senses are on high alert. Does it smell safe? Can I see what’s hiding in the corners? Is it safe to walk through this space? How do I get out without being trapped? Can I relax in here? Am I welcome? Humans do exactly the same thing. It’s unconscious, but our reptilian brain — the part of our brain associated with self-preservation — immediately takes in everything related to our survival and our ability to thrive in a new environment.

A study done by Gabriel A. Radvansky, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, found that “Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.” Having a mental clean slate when you walk into a new space also allows us to take in all the impressions of that space with our reptilian brains. Safe or unsafe? Sadly, every time I walk into my kitchen and forget what I came for, I eat something. 

Have you ever walked into a room and just stood there wondering what on earth you came in for? To remember, you must walk back out to where you were, and it may come back to you. This is not something that just happens to older people; it’s a common human experience. I taught visual merchandising at Parsons School of Design in New York and at The Art Institute in Portland, Oregon. My students were always considerably younger than me, and they often had the same experience. 

 I did a casual survey of friends and asked them what they considered to be repellent factors in a store. The demographics of my survey group consisted of white people from 50 to 73. 

Interestingly, the first thing many mentioned was the phony-feeling greeting. So much for all my fascination with animalistic behavior. But right on the heels of “Hi, welcome to Whatever, how can I help you?” was the bombardment of the senses. 

When asked about the first sense that was assaulted, the answers included each of the senses. Loud music was a major issue for everyone. Next was an unpleasant odor, including mildew, strong chlorine, chemicals, backed-up sewer or someone microwaving a fish taco. A few people — myself included — hate fake floral scents. I can’t go into or even near a Yankee Candle store. 

The light level was another irritation factor. If it felt too dark, people couldn’t see the merchandise well and especially the signage and prices. Messiness and overstocked fixtures came next, along with fixtures filled with cheap grab-and-buy stuff right in the entry area, making it difficult to walk into the rest of the store. Last, disgust with the feeling of grime, dirt and dust. 

Luckily, most of the icky things are free to fix. A few, a bit more expensive. But none of these is the type of thing to put off. While you and your staff may be used to whatever is going on, a customer isn’t and does not want to shop at a place they perceive as icky.

The dreaded rote “welcome” speech: It always sounds phony, and customers know that whoever is welcoming them has been told exactly what to say by a team of lawyers, psychologists and managers. It’s always something safe and ostensibly warm feeling. People just want to be acknowledged when they come into your showroom or parts store. “Hi,” with eye contact and a smile works well. It makes someone feel seen and a smile is friendly and non-aggressive. Cost: Free.

The wrong music

What is right for your sales staff can be horribly wrong for your customers. Years ago, a close friend had a successful crystal store in Westport, Connecticut. Once a week, her 16-year-old son worked at the store in the afternoons and once a week, she had zero sales. I did some reconnaissance and felt the bass from the music in the soles of my shoes 20 feet from the store. Metallica and crystals are not a match. The music just didn’t work with the products. While it’s lovely to entertain your staff, they won’t have jobs if your customers are unhappy. Find a genre that works for people of all ages, such as classic rock, classic country (for parts of the U.S. that love it best), upbeat melodic jazz and classical music. Cost: Whatever you’re paying now for streaming music.

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Odors in the room

Mildew is a killer — not just because it smells awful and sticks to everything you sell, but for anyone with mold or mildew allergies, it can also make them sick, either immediately or over time. It can also intensify asthma and bronchial conditions. It’s created by moisture and humidity. If your store smells like mildew, figure out where it’s coming from and using a mix of vinegar and baking soda (Google it), wash down every surface you can to remove the odor. 

Chemicals, bottled or boxed, often emit strong odors. It’s difficult to remove chemical smells from the area where you store and sell them. But consider a fan in that area or a ceiling vent with a fan to suck up the scent and hopefully disperse it outside. Cost: Varies from inexpensive natural remedies to far more expensive electronic remedies, including dehumidifiers.

Unnatural smells

Fake scents can be as annoying as mildew. Sales killers for people who are scent-sensitive include fake florals, vanilla and (true ick) patchouli. Scents that work for most people are food-based — and we’re not talking about anything fishy. Popular scents include citrus, cookies and any other baked goods. But, the smell of baked goods can make people hungry, and they may leave sooner in their desire for food. Citrusy scents are your best bet but use all natural oils in diffusers around the store. With any scent you decide to introduce into the store, please make sure it doesn’t repel any of your staff. Having no scent is better than a repellant one.

Cost: Natural scent oils vary in price, as do diffusers, but a great-smelling store is worth it! 

Bad lighting

The light level of a store is very important for any human over 40. Around then, our eyes start losing their ability to see well with low light. Many people in their 60s need three times more ambient light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s. 

You must light a store so your older customers feel comfortable and welcome, and can read the prices. Younger customers aren’t going to complain about the store being too light, but older people will complain if it’s too dark — either in person or by them shopping elsewhere. One trick to make this more affordable is to light your walls, floor fixtures and spas with attention to the signage. You don’t need a lot of light directed on the aisles unless you have level changes. Level changes require a lot of light for safety. 

If you have all fluorescents and if the bulbs are more than eight months old, they should all be replaced as they’ve faded significantly over that time. Regular fluorescent bulbs will lose 20% to 25% lumen power after 4,000 hours of use. They usually die around 10,000 hours. Interestingly, the longer you keep them on, the better. Switching them on and off causes them to fade more quickly. Cost: Depends on how much lighting you need to add. You should only add LEDs. They will save you money immediately.

Cardboard displays at the entrance

These semi-flimsy units usually hold seasonal “pick-up” merchandise. When they’re sitting in the decompression zone where customers walk in and scan the store to see where they want to go, these fixtures often block their view and obstruct easy entry. Cost: Free! Move them out of the way so people can see your store and where they need to go. 


This is simple: There should never be boxes on the floor waiting to get stocked on the shelves unless there is a person emptying those boxes. Boxes waiting for UPS need their own area, out of the customer’s view. A messy sales desk looks disorganized. A disorganized store cuts deeply into the customers’ perception of the quality of your repair work. It’s unconscious and it’s powerful. Cost: Free! Do it now! It matters!

Dirt, dust, grime and grease

Seriously, this is a no-brainer. There should never be any of these on your merchandise, fixtures, walls, floors, shelves, counters or your clothing, unless you’re repairing a spa! Just imagine your mother, or some very picky friend, doing the white-glove test in your store. Cost: Free. Once again, do it now!

Each of these things matter to your customers. It pays to have someone neutral come to your store and let you know what they think. Stay open-minded. It will pay off immediately when you make any of these improvements. Even non-picky people don’t want to feel icky.