Hidden persuaders influence what products are bought and how customers rate the shopping experience. They include aromas that increase spending, music that boosts profits, colors that enhance sales, and font choices that can make or break a purchase.

This article discusses how they work—and how you can make them work for you.

Consumers move through a glittering haze of commercial messages. At every second their brains are bombarded by around eleven million bits of information. But they can consciously attend to just 16 of them!

The rest of the information is not ignored, however. Far from it. Most is processed by the subconscious mind, where it influences what they buy, how much they spend, how long they shop for, and how well or badly they subsequently rate the shopping experience.

Although hidden persuaders operate via all the senses, one of the most neglected yet most powerful of these is the sense of smell.

The Smell of Success

Because our nasal epithelium—which enables us to detect smells—is connected directly to the brain, even a few molecules of an aroma are sufficient to evoke subconscious memories and trigger either a desire or a reluctance to spend.

The use of newly baked bread or freshly ground coffee to stimulate sales is widely known, but even the most subtle of smells can exert a significant influence.

When Belgium researchers introduced the aroma of chocolate into book shops, for example, customers not only shopped for longer but also purchased more books—despite the fact that the chocolate aroma was so subtle that it went completely undetected by a majority of customers. Other examples abound.

A Net Cost grocery store in New York has used a variety of aromas to boost sales, including chocolate in the sweet snacks aisle, grapefruit in the produce aisle, and rosemary focaccia in the bread aisle. Since the system was installed, sales are reported to have risen 7%.

At Bloomingdales in the US, shoppers encounter the soft scent of baby powder in the infant department, the tropical scent of coconut in the swimsuit department, and lilac in the lingerie department. During festive periods, the aromas of sugar, biscuits, chocolate, and evergreen are used to create a warm and cheerful shopping experience. All are reported as having a positive effect on both sales and customer satisfaction.

Music Influences Buying Choices

Background music influences buying decisions, even if shoppers are unaware of what is being played, research has found. In one study, wine buyers were exposed to either classical music or selections from the current Top 40. Although none could say what type of music they had heard, when the classics were being played shoppers spent significantly more money. Not by purchasing more wine... but by buying higher-priced wines.

Color Me Profitable

When Joseph Bellizzi of Arizona State University and Robert Hite from Kansas University compared sales in two stores, one predominantly red and the other blue, they found that in the blue environment shoppers bought more produce, made buying decisions more rapidly, and browsed for longer than in the red store. Here again, when questioned, none of the shoppers mentioned the color scheme. Be aware of the colors you use and their likely impact as hidden persuaders—or dissuaders.

Fonts and Fluency

So far I have discussed only hidden influences that help promote sales. But what about those that inadvertently make shoppers less likely to buy the product?

In our laboratory we conducted a study in which volunteers, divided into two groups, rated tomato soup. Both groups tasted the same soup described in exactly the same way on the menu: " Rich and creamy tomato soup." The only difference was in the fonts used. One menu was printed using Courier, the other in Lucinda Calligraphy.

Two-thirds (64%) more of those who had read the menu printed in Lucida Calligraphy font rated the soup as tastier, fresher, and more enjoyable than did those given the Courier menu. Twice as many also said they would definitely buy the soup for themselves.

In a related study, Nathan Novemsky, associate professor of marketing at Yale School of Management, and his colleagues asked participants whether they wanted to purchase one of two cordless telephones right away or whether they wanted to have time to think about it. Information about the phones was printed either in a familiar font or one that was harder to read. Only 17% of those in the "easy to read" font group chose to defer the purchase, compared with 41% of those in the "hard to read" font group.

The power of this form of hidden persuader lies in the speed and ease with which a customer is able to make sense of the sales message—what psychologists call "processing fluency." It exerts a significant, if generally subconscious, influence on both purchasing intentions and subsequent enjoyment of the product.

A font that is even slightly tricky to decipher increases the mental effort and energy that must be expended to make sense of it. Furthermore, sales messages that are communicated in a way that is hard to understand or is in any way unfamiliar causes shoppers to subconsciously regard it as untrustworthy.

All of which demonstrates the extent to which hidden persuaders are capable of boosting sales and building consumer loyalty.

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Make Hidden Persuaders Work for You: Aroma, Music, Color, Font

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image of David Lewis

Dr. David Lewis is the author of The Brain Sell: When Science Meets Shopping (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, April 15, 2014) and chairman of the UK-based research consultancy Mindlab International. He explains how customers' actions and feelings are influenced by aspects of their surroundings they are never consciously aware of.

LinkedIn: David Lewis-Hodgson