Experiential and Sensory Design

Engage all of your customers’ senses

Every decade or so, a new term is coined to ensure retail success. In the last few years, the term has been “experiential design.” You may wonder what customers were doing before: Were they not experiencing your store? Chances are, they were and still do, but one way you can make sure they remember shopping with you is to add some sensory prompts.

There was an educational study done years ago that continues to make excellent sense today. It shows how our memories are influenced by how many of our senses are engaged. With every sense that’s entertained, the more we remember our shopping experience and the store.

Adding sensory stimuli in your stores will increase your customers’ memory of their experience. It can also increase their willingness to shop longer and consider more expensive merchandise. Our senses are: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The sixth sense is the overall feel or vibe of your store.

Too often, we walk into a spa store and the only scent is chlorine, the only sounds are people on their cell phones and our sense of taste has to wait until we find a restaurant or random snack in the car. You have a great opportunity to create a more memorable experience simply and affordably.

Sound has a profound impact on how we shop. If it were up to my husband (a boomer), it would be all Beatles, all the time. That may not be possible given the copyright laws now, but it’s worth a shot. The faster the music, the higher the levels of sensory arousal, and people will move faster. The only problem with that is they will move more quickly out of your store! Slower music encourages people to move slower so they shop longer and buy more. In one study, the average increase of sales with slower tempo music was 38 percent more compared to faster tempo music.

The louder the music, the less time people will spend shopping, as it can be very distracting. Especially when you’re trying to talk to a customer. Softer music appeals to older shoppers. Interestingly, upbeat classical music often leads to sales of more expensive products. This works very well for good wine, and it’s worth trying for your spas. Older classical music is part of the public domain now and should be free to play.

The public domain is made up of any musical works published before 1922, as well as those placed in public domain in the United States. In most other countries, music generally enters the public domain in a period of 50 to 75 years after the artist’s death. If a recording is not considered public domain and is under copyright, it’s unlawful to play it in your store without copyright access. You may wonder if anyone will even notice you playing your old Beatles CD. It’s possible, and you could incur a hefty fine. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC representatives go into retail stores to check for copyrighted music being played. If it is, they demand these businesses pay for a license. ASCAP and BMI hold the public performance rights to 97 percent of the music playing in the United States, and their people are sneaky. They look just like customers.

But if you play the radio and your store is less than 2,000 square feet, you’re good to go. If you have more than 2,000 square feet and have fewer than six speakers (no more than four speakers in any one room), you are exempt from fees.

If you only play classical music from before 1922, it’s all in the public domain. That includes anything by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and many others.

You can always play original music with the permission of the composer if you know someone who is talented and the music feels right for your store.

Having the sound of ocean waves or a babbling brook may be interesting sound choices. Just make sure your restrooms are clean and in good order. They’ll be used more frequently with water as a background sound.

With all these caveats, it’s still well worth it to engage your customers’ sense of sound. Music can add life and delight to a shopping experience, as well as subtly encourage people to shop longer. Just remember to keep the volume low. You want your sales people to be heard above all else.


Scent marketing is an integral part of sensory merchandising. Chlorine, mold and cigarette smoke are all a turn-off for your customers. If you choose to add scent, essential oil combinations are your best bet, not a commercial plug in. Stick with citrus combinations like lemon/lime that enhance memory and alertness, or a combination using three of the following: orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, bergamot and rosemary. Peppermint is good for memory but is not as universally appreciated. Test your combination with your employees and friends before investing in a scent dispenser. As with the music, keep the scent faint.

Nike added scent in some locations, and their surveys showed that customers increased their intention to purchase by 80 percent. If you’ve ever gone into a gas station and smelled fresh brewed coffee, you’ll understand how that scent has been known to increase coffee sales by 300 percent. The same goes for baked goods. But, unless you’re selling baked good or giving them away, don’t encourage hunger. That just makes customers shop quickly so they can leave and eat. Some stores offer freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from small, portable ovens. Otis Spunkmeyer has a commercial convection oven designed for small spaces. They also sell their dough, and it’s delicious.

If you choose to offer cookies, be aware that your staff may enlarge considerably unless they either hate cookies or are very disciplined. Don’t worry about fingerprints on your spas — they’re washable. Make sure you offer fresh, cold water as well to wash down the cookies. Having a water cooler on the selling floor is always a good policy. In the fall and winter, consider a coffee machine as well as apple cider. Hard candy is appreciated as well.

Our sense of touch is always engaged in a retail environment, but make sure that whatever your customers touch is dust-free. That means your accessories as well as your spas. Dust the top corners of any gazebos or overhead elements you have in the store. If you have helium-filled Mylar balloons that last for months, they also need to be dusted — as do both alive and fake plants.

If you use towels as props for color and texture, shake them out (outside) preferably once a week to get rid of accumulated dust. It matters, especially to your female shoppers who will notice dust and grit.

Engaging the senses enhances experiential design. While I consistently promote great visual merchandising, store design, interesting colors, smart signage and now, adding sensory elements, remember that customer service is still No. 1.


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