How Retailers Can Use All Five Senses to Get and Keep Customers: Retail Rescue’s Guide to Multi-sensory Retail



While brick-and-mortar retailers wring their hands about the sad state of affairs in physical retail, they may be overlooking the most powerful competitive weapon at their disposal and one that e-commerce retailers cannot replicate: their ability to engage shoppers’ human dimension through their five senses.

Shedding light on the power of multi-sensory engagement in retail come assistant professor Miralem Helmefalk and Bertil Hultén, Ph.D. at Linneaus University in Sweden. In an article published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumers Services, they write, “For retailers, a visually dominant store atmosphere should be designed more in the direction of a multi-sensory atmosphere in offering shoppers more appealing experiences of the retail setting.”

They cite research that demonstrates “a positive effect of multi-sensory congruent cues on shoppers’ emotions, through valence and purchase behavior, through time spent in the store and purchase.”

In plain English, shoppers engaged through all five senses in the store spend more time there and are more likely to make purchases.

Brick-and-mortar retailers need to do more

With the rapid encroachment of digital e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retailers desperately need more effective tools to compete in the physical world. The bad news in physical retail is undeniable. In 2019 some 9,300 major retailer stores closed in 2019, a record high, following ~6,000 closures in 2018. And between 2017 and 2022 an estimated 20-25% of malls will close.

And even more alarming, UBS predicts that with each percentage point market share rise in online retail, some 8,000-8,500 stores will need to close. As it stands, e-commerce holds a 16% market share and it is expected to rise to 25% by 2026. UBS expects upwards of 75,000 stores will be forced out of business by then. While estimates of Amazon’s share of e-commerce retail vary, closer to 40% than 50%, it still is wielding the biggest hammer to physical retail’s coffin.

In the face of these dire assessments about the fate of physical retail, brick-and-mortar retailers have a powerful advantage that no digital upstart can compete with, even Amazon with same-day or next-day delivery. It is their power to engage in the real world by activating all five senses.

E-commerce retailers can’t do what brick-and-mortar retailers can

Unfortunately, too few retailers are effectively using the power of multi-sensory experiences at retail, believes Darren Coleman, founder of Wavelength Marketing and author of Building Brand Experiences: A Practical Guide to Retaining Brand Relevance. “Retailers would benefit from building brand experiences with all our senses in mind,” he shared with me.

With a Ph.D. in branding and as a guest lecturer in corporate brand management at the University of Warwick, Coleman comes bearing plenty of footnotes to back up his opinions.

Rather than hitting on all five-sensory cylinders, Coleman finds retailers have tended to focus on one, like the visual, or two, adding scent or music, while ignoring the potential of telling a cohesive brand story with all five senses.

Retailers need to take a step back, get above the fray, and assess what their brand ultimately means and how they can communicate that consistently across all five senses. Such messaging can cement the brand in customers’ memories because brands operate in the emotional space.

“The key is to build multi-sensory experiences in retail that trigger an emotional response before the conscious, cognitive and rational parts of the brain kicks in,” Coleman says.

Get this report and make multi-sensory retail work for you

This 60+ page report was prepared to unpack the psychology behind multi-sensory retail and provide ideas and actionable strategies that retailers can use to engage all their customers’ five senses.

While people are increasingly conducting their lives digitally, they are first, foremost and forever analog human beings. A multi-sensory retail experience captivates and engages customers at their emotional core. The result of implementing multi-sensory retail will be customers to spend more time in the store, spend more money when they are there and come back more often to engage their senses again. Multi-sensory retail is the ultimate in experiential retailing.