Short- and Long-Term Effects of Nonconsciously Processed Ambient Scents in a Servicescape

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Anna Girard of Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Marcel Lichters of Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, Marko Sarstedt of
Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, and Dipayan Biswas of the University of South Florida. They recently published an article in Journal of Service Research entitled “Short- and Long-Term Effects of Nonconsciously Processed Ambient Scents in a Servicescape: Findings From Two Field Experiments,” which is currently free to read. Below, they reflect on this research:]

Have you ever walked past, or entered, a Victoria’s Secret or an Abercrombie & Fitch store? If so, you might have noticed a distinctive ambient scent. One can speculate that possible goals for having ambient scents might be to create a pleasant atmosphere, improve their customers’ service experience, or simply mask bad smells in their retail stores. Importantly, Victoria’s Secret or Abercrombie & Fitch are not alone in its efforts to leverage ambient scents. With an annual growth rate of 10% and a volume of over USD 200 million in 2017, the market for ambient scents is growing rapidly.

It is therefore not surprising that ambient scents have also received considerable attention in academic research. Prior research in this domain has revealed that pleasant ambient scents have a positive influence on consumers’ perceptions, of for example, the physical servicescape and on their brand evaluations. We extend this research stream and examine whether the positive effects also hold when consumers are repeatedly exposed to ambient scents without being aware of it. And do the positive effects prevail in a service environment, characterized by many different olfactory influences (e.g., malodors) – as it is often the case in real-world service settings? How do consumers react to the discontinuation of a scent campaign?

We quickly realized that answering these research questions is very challenging in a laboratory setting, where consumers (typically students) are exposed to an ambient scent under highly controlled conditions – as commonly done in prior scent research. Evaluating the long-term effects in an olfactory-rich environment requires collaborating with an industry partner who would grant us access to its servicescape over several weeks, ideally months. Finding such a partner was very challenging, but the study’s first author, Anna Girard, managed to convince a regional subsidiary of Germany’s major railway company to support the project as well as to involve a professional fragrance manufacturer who designed two different scents that fit its servicescape. Our first task was to identify the most appropriate scent and the optimal level of intensity, which we did by running a series of pretests. We found that even in the highest intensity levels, most customers did not notice the scent – that is, they processed the scent nonconsciously.

Next, we exposed the customers to the ambient scent diffused via the train’s air conditioning system over a period of four months. Our results not only confirm ambient scent’s positive short-term effect, but show that the use of a nonconsciously processed long-term ambient scent has an enduring, positive impact on consumers’ evaluations of service quality, service experience, and service value. Furthermore, our results indicate that ambient scents’ positive effect on service evaluations persists for at least two weeks after the ambient scent has been withdrawn.

Our research produced some further striking findings, which we couldn’t report in the published paper. Most notably, we also queried consumers’ satisfaction with the service provider and brand attitude and found no notable improvements in these constructs over time. We also ran a series of qualitative interviews with several of the participants. These interviews confirmed that most participants did not notice any special scent and that they were generally in favor of introducing a pleasant ambient scent into the train compartments.

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