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Retail therapy is a real thing…

… and merchants can take advantage of it

Kyle Murray is a professor of marketing and the director of the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta

Feb 24, 2017

by Kyle B. Murray

Are you in a bad mood? Has the dark and cold Alberta winter got you down? Would shopping make you feel better?

Even small changes to a retail space can improve shoppers’ moods and increase their willingness to spend

According to research published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing, for many people the answer is, “Yes.” In the study, published in 2011, researchers found that people could significantly improve their mood when they spent an average of US$59 on a treat for themselves. A follow-up survey indicated that those shoppers did not regret the purchase and did not experience a downturn in mood after the purchase was made. The authors conclude that “retail therapy” is alive and well.

This fact is not lost on merchants. Indeed, many retailers believe that their best defence against losing revenue to online sales is an enjoyable in-store shopping experience. Although e-commerce currently represents a very small share of overall consumer spending in Canada, it is growing rapidly and many businesses are seeing a steady year-over-year decline in store traffic. As a result, the science of the shopping environment is quickly becoming an essential component of consumer marketing.

An important part of this emerging field is atmospherics research – that is, the study of the impact of lighting, colour, scent and sound on buyer behaviour. The goal is to ensure that the shopper feels good about visiting a physical store, even if it doesn’t result in an immediate purchase. Ultimately, the research tells us that when you are in a good mood, you tend to spend more time shopping and spend more money. When you are in a bad mood, you are more likely to rush through the store and spend less money. In addition, people who enjoy being in a store are more likely to put up with driving, parking and shopping, and less likely to shop online. More than ever, stores are being designed to provide environments that engage you and make you a happier shopper.

Leaders in atmospherics have been designing environments to appeal to their target customers for years. One example you are probably familiar with is LUSH cosmetics. Even if you have never been inside one of their stores, you have likely noticed the scent of the retailer’s freshly made bath and beauty products from well outside their front door. Take a moment to glance inside and you will likely see a store overflowing with customers. It might not be for everyone, but LUSH has designed an in-store experience that is not easily replicated online or by the competition. In a completely different category, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s have also used elements of store design that aim to appeal to a shopper interested in hunting or fishing. From the smell of Cabela’s fudge shop to Bass Pro Shops’ giant fish aquariums, atmospherics is less about what the retailer is selling and more about an environment that facilitates sales.

Grocery stores are masters at using the bakery and the produce sections to engage your sense of smell and to create colourful displays. In Alberta, Safeway has for many years been an atmospherics leader in the grocery business with innovative store designs that use lighting and colour to create a more comfortable shopping environment, even going so far as to add a Starbucks or Tim Hortons to make your time in the store a more pleasant experience. Recent entrants from Loblaws’ City Markets to Freson Brothers’ grocery stores have designed shopping environments that improve their competitive position.

The growing interest in retail atmospherics is supported by a series of studies that indicate a clear effect on sales and profitability. For example, in a study of two IKEA stores with different interior designs – that is, layout, interior colours, recent renovations, and furniture presentation – German researcher Kordelia Spies and colleagues found that when a store’s interior is seen by consumers as more pleasant to shop in, it affected their behaviour. The store with a superior atmospheric design stimulated positive feelings in its customers. More importantly, when the store’s interior made customers feel better, they spent more money. My own research, conducted with colleagues at the University of Alberta, has demonstrated that even small changes to a retail space – such as adding windows or skylights to increase the amount of natural sunlight in a store – can improve shoppers’ moods and increase their willingness to spend.

Could it be that our dark and cold winters are part of the reason why Alberta has such a high level of retail square footage per capita? If you are feeling like winter has been too long and spring is still too far away, maybe a trip to your favourite store will cheer you up. Research suggests you won’t regret it. AV

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