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«Effects of Gender-Congruent Ambient Scent on Approach and Avoidance Behaviors in a Retail Store Eric R. Spangenberg David E. Sprott Washington State ...»

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Effects of Gender-Congruent Ambient Scent

on Approach and Avoidance Behaviors in a Retail Store

Eric R. Spangenberg

David E. Sprott

Washington State University

Bianca Grohmann

Concordia University

Daniel L. Tracy

The University of Tennessee at Martin

Contact information for correspondence:

Eric R. Spangenberg

Professor of Marketing

College of Business and Economics

Washington State University

P.O. Box 99164-4730

Pullman, WA 99164, USA

Phone: (509) 335-3596 Fax: (509) 335-6896 E-mail: ers@wsu.edu Submitted to the 7th Annual Retail Strategy and Consumer Decision Research Symposium 2004 Consumer Decision Track Abstract Ambient scent in a retail environment can influence consumers, with such effects likely moderated by congruity between the scent and the retailer’s product offering. Unfortunately, minimal prior research has not documented such effects on a broader range of products and in real-world settings. This research addresses these shortcomings by exploring the evaluative and behavioral effects of congruity between the perceived gender of ambient scent and a store’s gender-based products. A field experiment demonstrates scent congruity to influence perceptions of the store, its merchandise, and actual sales. Supporting an S-O-R interpretation, affective responses to the environment and arousal mediated these effects.

Keywords: Consumer psychology; retail environments; ambient scent; gender effects Effects of Gender-Congruent Ambient Scent on Approach and Avoidance Behaviors Retailers’ acquiescence to the importance of attending to environmental psychological variables is fueled by research showing that environmental cues affect critical consumer responses (e.g., Chebat and Michon, 2003; Mattila and Wirtz, 2001; Spangenberg, Crowley, and Henderson, 1996). The burgeoning investigation of such effects has identified olfactory cues as one of the many important components of the retail environment influencing people’s perceptions of the store itself and products offered for sale therein (e.g., Bone and Ellen, 1999).

Although recognized as a moderator, the appropriateness (or congruity) of olfactory cues has been given limited empirical attention in prior research with only two published studies (Bone and Jantrania, 1992; Mitchell, Kahn, and Knasko, 1995). In these studies, congruity (as compared to incongruity) between a scent and a focal product has been shown to lead to favorable outcomes including improved information processing (Mitchell et al., 1995), enhanced product evaluations (Bone and Jantrania, 1992), and altered choice behavior (Mitchell et al., 1995). Existing research is limited, however, in that it has remained in the laboratory and has only examined stimuli with inherent scents (i.e., hand lotion and cleaning agents, Bone and Jantrania, 1992; chocolate, Mitchell et al., 1995). Of course in the real world, firms offer many products that do not have an expected scent associated with them (e.g., clothing).

The current research extends the extant prior research by exploring customers’ responses to an ambient scent in an actual store: rather than focusing on scents inherent to products (e.g., floral scents in a florist), we investigate the effectiveness of ambient scents that do not originate from the product offering. More specifically, congruity between the gender-based product offerings of a retailer and the perceived femininity or masculinity of ambient scents is explored.

Consistent with prior conceptualizations of product-scent congruity (i.e., the correspondence or ‘fit’ of a particular scent with a target object, or its appropriateness in certain contexts; Bone and Ellen, 1999), gender–scent congruity is defined herein as correspondence of an ambient scent with the gender-based products offered for sale by a retailer. Following a review of pertinent literature and an overview of our theoretical expectations, we report the results of a field experiment conducted in a clothing store, where we examine the effects of congruent versus incongruent gender-based ambient scents on actual consumer response variables.

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Specialty stores like bakeries, chocolate shops and florists often carry product lines with inherent ambient scents (Mitchell et al., 1995) and have long relied on scents of their products to attract and influence customers (Bone and Ellen, 1999). Contemporary service providers and managers of stores carrying products not possessing an inherent (or ‘expected’) scent are also adding ambient scents to their retail environments (e.g., an artificially diffused floral scent).

The use of ambient olfactory cues by business practitioners has led to increased attention by scholars attempting to determine the psychological and behavioral effects of olfactory cues on people. Extant research demonstrates that ambient scents impact a variety of consumer perceptions and behaviors; a recent comprehensive review of the literature (Bone and Ellen,

1999) suggests that the presence of an ambient scent can elicit cognitive elaboration, affective and evaluative responses (e.g., Spangenberg et al., 1996), influence purchase intentions (e.g., Mitchell et al., 1995; Spangenberg et al., 1996), and possibly alter actual customer behavior (although this issue remains undemonstrated in the literature). These effects on consumers are theoretically supported by research in environmental psychology including works by Mehrabian and Russell (1974), Bitner (1992), and Gulas and Block (1995). The theoretical mechanism underlying most of the published research in this area is the well-defined stimulus-organismresponse (S-O-R) paradigm (a detailed review is provided by Spangenberg et al., 1996).

Regarding ambient scents in retail settings, the S-O-R model posits that environmental olfactory stimuli (S) (combined with other cues) affect consumers’ internal evaluations (O) (e.g., affective responses), in turn eliciting approach or avoidance responses (R).

In particular, an environment’s characteristics combine to create degrees of affective response and arousal in people. Affect is defined as the general positive or negative state of emotion or feeling and affective response in the context of this work is the emotional reaction to the environment that a person has come in contact with (Bower, 1981). According to the S-O-R model, pleasant scents should lead to pleasant affective (or mood) states while unpleasant odors result in unpleasant affective states (see Ehrlichman and Bastone, 1992). The term arousal refers to the psychological feeling state elicited by the environment (Mehrabian and Russell, 1974).

The S-O-R model suggests that an arousing, affectively pleasant environment should produce approach behaviors while an arousing, affectively unpleasant environment should produce avoidance behaviors. The literature supports the S-O-R–based notion that pleasantly scented environments encourage approach behaviors while unpleasantly scented environments elicit avoidance behaviors (Bone and Ellen, 1999). Approach behaviors are positive responses directed at the environment or items within the environment; for example, intentions to remain in, or revisit a store, or actually spending money in a store. Avoidance behaviors reflect opposite responses; that is, a desire to leave a store, no intention to revisit, or failing to spend money.

Research on the effects of olfactory cues is relatively sparse and published work typically reports laboratory-based (as opposed to field) experiments. It has been shown, however, that an important moderator of the demonstrated effects of olfactory cues is congruity between the scent and the product offering (Bone and Jantrania, 1992) or the environment in which the product is offered (Mitchell et al., 1995). Findings of two known studies suggest that scents congruent with product offerings may lead to favorable outcomes for business practitioners (also see Bone and Ellen, 1999). For example, Bone and Jantrania (1992) found that quality ratings of sunscreen and household cleaner were more favorable when scented in a manner congruent with the product category (i.e., coconut sunscreen and lemon cleaner) than when scented in an incongruent manner (i.e., lemon sunscreen and coconut cleaner). It is noteworthy that scent congruity had a significant and strong influence on product evaluations in this study whereas scent pleasantness did not.

While Bone and Jantrania’s (1992) findings focus on scents emanating from the product, a paper by Mitchell et al. (1995) suggests that such congruity is important for ambient scents as well. In particular, Mitchell et al. demonstrated that ambient olfactory cues (i.e., chocolate or floral scents) impacted people’s information processing and choice behavior regarding products either related or unrelated to the scents (i.e., candy assortments or floral arrangements). More specifically, this research indicates that congruent scents enhanced consumer judgments (e.g., research participants spent more time processing information in the presence of a congruent scent) and choice behavior (e.g., participants in the congruent scent condition made choices that were more evenly distributed across all options).

On the whole, extant research suggests that ambient scents in retail environments that are congruent with products offered should result in positive evaluative outcomes. Further, those shopkeepers manipulating their environments should avoid the use of product-incongruent ambient scents. When a cue doesn’t “fit” the context, consumer cognition is potentially taxed to the point of inhibiting attitude formation (Pomerantz, 1981). Thus, although an odor may be objectively judged as pleasant, if it is not contextually congruent, evaluation of stimuli associated with the odor may be counterproductive from the standpoint of a retailer.

The positive effect of congruence between ambient environmental scent and product offerings is interpretable within the S-O-R paradigm. Social psychology has a long-standing tradition of demonstrating that people generally seek out and embrace consistency (or congruency) in their lives and avoid inconsistency when they can (e.g., Cialdini, 1993; Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958). In the context of the current work, an arousing environment (i.e., a store containing perceptible olfactory cues) will evoke positive affective responses if the cues are consistent (or congruent) with people’s expectations. Arousal and positive affective response (as a result of cue congruence) should elicit approach behavior while arousal coupled with negative affective response (as a result of cue incongruence) should lead to a lower degree of approach behavior or a higher degree of avoidance behavior.

Historically, the strategic use of product congruent ambient scents would prove beneficial for retailers with only relatively narrow product offerings that have an associated scent (e.g., a florist, a bakery). The importance of ambient scent and product congruity is likely reduced for retailers who have product offerings without any, or with multiple, associated scents. Thus, while theme- or product-based scents may prove effective environmental cues for certain retailers, the pragmatic applicability of this finding is limited for retailers offering multi-line products with no single inherent or “expected” scent (e.g., discount and department stores).

The current research takes an approach differing from published studies by focusing on congruity between ambient scent and products with no naturally occurring scent. In the retail environment, a variety of factors exist (outside of product offerings) that could be used as a basis for selecting congruent ambient scents. In the current research, we explore the congruity between ambient scents and a non-scent characteristic of the retail product offering—namely, gender associated with the items for sale. As such, this work is the first to take into account the congruity of gender-based associations pertaining to ambient scents and gender-based associations with products. Our choice of gender as the basis for scent congruity is grounded in the pragmatic consideration that many multi-line retailers organize products in their stores based on gender. For example, many department stores separate product offerings by gender, such that women’s clothing occupies one floor of the store while male clothing occupies another. If proven beneficial, such a retailer could effectively use ambient scents to alter the retail atmosphere by infusing gender-congruent scents into each of the gender-oriented departments.

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