The senses control our spending

Anders Gustafsson

A hint of fragrance, a small gift on your way in, a tap on your shoulder, what do they have in common? They are seemingly insignificant experiences that can determine how much money you spend when shopping.

Who has control over reason and emotions in the store? The idea of rational humans should no longer prevail. It is the emotions that control us to great extent, and our choices are largely made in the subconscious.

Anders Gustafsson, professor in marketing, knows what it takes to open up the wallet of customers, having conducted several large scale experiments in stores.

Gustafsson’s research is interesting for store managers, yet also useful for consumers eager to learn how easily influenced they are. 

Our overworked brain

– Our senses are directly connected to the most primitive part of our brain. Our survival has traditionally been due to automated responses to impulses we receive in that way, and this has not changed over time, Gustafsson explains.

Through smells, sounds, visual impressions, taste and touch, we get information that helps us make choices, often without reflecting on them or going into depth of the decision. Using our senses to orientate ourselves, is something we almost intuitively learn from we are children. Every day we make around 35,000 choices, so obviously, it is simply impossible for us to take all of these choices and engaging our brains in a deliberate mental process.

The smell of chocolate chip cookies

Smell is one of those things we rarely can shield ourselves from. We can close our eyes, but we can not stop breathing in the outside world. How does various scents determine what we buy? Gustafsson has done several experiments on this.

– In an experiment we tested what would happen if we sprayed the smell of chocolate chip cookies in a store. The effect was that the customer bought more sweets and unhealthy goods, Gustafsson says.


Just spray some scent of chocolate biscuits, and without more ado, we buy more sweets and unhealthy food.

– Conversely, if we sprayed the scent of clean clothes in the store, customer bought far more sensible goods. The smell of cleanliness reminds us that we should take care of what surrounds us and that includes ourselves.

– Our sense of smell is actually better than we think. Our brain is good at recognizing tiny odor particles without us actually being aware of it. Unconsciously, we seek the source of the smell or try to avoid what stinks. We see this not least in eye tracking tests, where different scents trigger search behavior for what gives rise to the scent.

How to open the wallet of submissive men

Gustafsson has also studied the effect of placing products, as well as employees, at the store entrance. This small change can have a very big impact on the overall shopping experience and how much money the shoppers spend.

Most customers find it pleasant to be greeted by store employees at the store entrance, but further research from Gustafsson discovered that there is a certain type of store employee that is better at influencing some customer than others.

– After placing female and male employees in various stores, we discovered that larger male employees often made  men that is triggered by competition by other males to shop more, says Gustafsson.

And what does this mean? The sight of big and sturdy men with classic masculine features triggers the feeling of competition in men who are sensitive to these signals. They end up buying more as a response to a sense of being dominated.

The importance of touch

Besides smell and visual impressions, Gustafsson has also tested touch as a sensory experience , by looking into what happens when the customers are touched or bumped into.

– Among other things, we have tested the effect of pushing and it is quite clear that we spend less money when we are shoved by someone during the shopping trip, even if the person that bumped into you apologizes, Gustafsson explains. However, he points out that the effect is not the same if we are only shopping for fun compared to solving a task such as searching for something specific.

Gustafsson’s repeated studies shows that salespeople who touch the customers in a polite and friendly way, clearly make more money and are far more successful. Even so, many sellers hold back, because they are afraid that  the person being touched feels manipulated and will judge the seller by it.

Good shopping experiences

Clearly, we are extremely triggered by subtle impulses. We have a learned pattern, and the brain makes choices without us consciously thinking about it. Gustafsson encourages store employees to experiment more and play on customers emotions instead of common sense. Even small changes in the store can result in closing a sale at a higher price, but also assure that the customer keeps returning to the store, over and over again.

For us as consumers, a more engaging shopping experience in which our senses play an important part will contribute to us experiencing better shopping experiences, although the effect may be that we leave the store with an emptier wallet.


Andrea Webb Luangrath mfl.: Should I Touch the Customer? Rethinking Interpersonal Touch Effects from the Perspective of the Touch Initiator. Journal of Consumer Research, 2020. Sammendrag. Doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucaa021

Tobias Otterbring mfl.: The Abercrombie & Fitch Effect: The Impact of Employees’ Physical Dominance on Male Customers’ Status-Signaling Consumption. Journal of Marketing Research, 2018.

Christine Ringler mfl.: Look but Don’t Touch! The Impact of Active Interpersonal Haptic Blocking on Compensatory Touch and Purchase Behavior. Journal of Retailing, 2019. Sammendrag. Doi.org/10.1016/j.jretai.2019.10.007

Tabea Huneke mfl.: Does Service Employees' Appearance make a Difference for the Healthiness of Food Choice? Psychology and Marketing, 2015. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20765



Published 7. January 2021

You can also see all news here.