Eric Spangenberg knows he's too old for Abercrombie and Fitch. He knows as soon as he smells it.
The store's signature fragrance, Fierce, is a mixture of citrus and musk. It's a combination that Spangenberg, 55, says is clearly targeted toward a specific demographic: a young one.
It's called scent marketing — when a business chooses a specific scent to attract customers and boost sales, and it has become widely popular in the last several years, he says.
Spangenberg, a dean at the University of California, Irvine, has researched using scent in retail environments for more than 20 years. His research showed businesses can benefit from finding the right fragrance, in some cases doubling sales. Scent can affect how customers view the business, how long they spend shopping and how much money they spend, his research has shown.
To find the right fragrance, businesses need to consider who they're marketing to, he says.
"A lot of times people just want a generic answer," Spangenberg says. "Should I use lavender? OK, I'll use lavender. Should I use lemon? I'll use lemon. In the wrong context it doesn't transfer."
The right fragrance depends on several factors, including culture, he says. In the U.S., people might associate a lemon scent with cleaning products, but in other countries cleaning products might have a peach scent.
Gender can also play a role in choosing the right scent. Women spend more in an environment with a subtle vanilla fragrance, while men spend more with rose maroc, a scent Spangenberg didn't even know existed until his research.
Using 12 scents, Spangenberg's study found that vanilla was perceived as the most feminine scent and rose maroc was perceived as the most masculine.
Even if these aren't scents people would normally wear, when used subtly they have an impact on sales, he says. However, more research needs to be done to figure out if these two scents are the most effective at influencing each gender and why, Spangenberg says.
His research also showed complex fragrances aren't as effective as simple ones. If a fragrance has too many notes in it a customer will spend more time trying to figure out the scent than thinking about what they want to buy, he says.
"We only have so much processing capacity in our brains, and if the scent is too complex we're dedicating processing capacity to identifying and deciphering the scent rather than just allowing the scent to impact our appreciation of the environment," Spangenberg says.
Not every business that uses scents for marketing clouds its air with strong, noticeable fragrances. Most business use scent much more subtly, he says.
David Van Epps from Mood Media, a company that focuses on sensory experiences including scent, says the fragrances should be barely perceptible.
"You always want fragrance to be subtle so that what you're really doing is triggering that emotion, that pleasant memory, that overall experience, while not necessarily trying to hit the guest over the head with it," Van Epps says.
Over time, these fragrances leave an impression on customers, Van Epps says. Eventually they'll associate these scents with the brands they're buying.
"Some people will tell you you've got to hear a message 10 times before you'll have it really resonate with you," Van Epps says. "It's the same with fragrance, you smell that fragrance over and over and over again [and] it actually absolutely imprints on you."
The scents themselves aren't the only thing subtle: the delivery systems are, too. The devices used to push the fragrances through a space can range in size, but they're usually hard to spot or out of view of the customer. Some of the devices are designed to push the fragrance of a particular product, such as chocolate. Others can switch between fragrances throughout the day.
These devices can also allow businesses to easily choose a different fragrance, says ScentAir Director of Marketing Edward Burke.
"Usually we do enough testing in the beginning, [we] do a lot of consumer feedback to make sure their customers do in fact really like the fragrance but it's not unusual to have a little bit of tweaking as we go," Burke says. "A customer's not necessarily married to a particular fragrance. They can switch it up very easily, and sometimes there is a little bit of trial and error."
One ScentAir customer is Anytime Fitness, a gym with franchisees around the world. It started using scent marketing four years ago, says Mark Daly, national media director.
Franchisees can choose from four fragrances: Motivate, a white tea and fig scent; Inspire, a eucalyptus and mint scent; Energize, a grapefruit and lemongrass scent; or a neutralizing scent, Daly says. By far, he says, Motivate, Inspire and Energize are more popular.
"Our franchisees have gotten wonderful feedback from our members who enjoy working out in a pleasant smelling club rather than a stinky, sweaty smelling club," he says.
While the fitness club hasn't done any research to show these scents boost sales, Daly is convinced they have an impact, and Spangenberg's research shows that having the right fragrance is more effective than a neutralizing scent.
"The telling fact would be that those who began with ScentAir four years ago have continued to do so because they believe it's good for business," he says.
Air Aroma, another scent marketing company, works closely with luxury brands, sometimes for several months, to develop a scent unique to that brand. Businesses can pick from a list of fragrances, but that's not always the best way to go for brands, says Carly Fowler, Air Aroma's account manager.
"For a brand we find that the most effective way is to definitely have something unique to their brand, so we prefer to go through this process [of designing a fragrance] with the brand just to make sure that it is something different," Fowler says.
It's the same as creating a visual logo for a business, she says, except using scent.
Caele Pemberton is an intern with the NPR Business Desk.