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Olfactive Branding: Retail’s Fragrant Frontier

Fashion retailers have long created store environments aimed at stimulating the eyes and ears. Now companies are increasing their attention on the nose and embracing the arts of olfactive branding and scent marketing. BoF investigates.
Pye store in Hong Kong, scented by 12.29 | Source: Pye
  • Rebecca May Johnson

LONDON, United Kingdom — Bread just out of the oven; freshly cut grass; roasting coffee beans: these are smells often used to entice house buyers. In the last few years, fashion retailers have become increasingly aware of scent's power to convert customers, too. Indeed, a growing number of businesses from Bloomingdale's to Corto Moltedo now realise that their customer's nose can be an important pathway for building brand identity and encouraging them to spend more time (and more money) in stores.

“The length of time a consumer stays in a store is directly proportional to the average unit sale per customer,” says Elizabeth Musmanno, president of The Fragrance Foundation. "Smell can entice consumers to stay longer, shop longer and purchase more."

Musmanno’s assertion is powerfully backed up by a 1990 study conducted using Nike shoes by neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Alan Hirsch, director of The Smell and Taste Foundation. Hirsch placed identical pairs of sneakers in two identical rooms with one important difference: one was scented with mixed floral scents, one was unscented. Astonishingly, Hirsch’s research found that, in the scented environment, 84 percent of consumers felt more desire for the same pair of shoes, which they deemed to be worth on average $10.33 more.

While the hospitality industry has been quick to adopt scent as a means of encouraging consumer loyalty, according to Musmanno, fashion retailers have not been as quick off the mark: “One of the most overlooked areas is inside the bricks-and-mortar environment is scent. Retailers think a lot about the other senses… sight with visual displays and hearing with music, but scenting the environment is often forgotten.”


This is changing quickly. Today, a range of companies provide scenting programs for fashion retailers, from niche players like "olfactory branding" firm 12.29, run by sisters Dawn and Samantha Goldworm, to global scent marketing giant ScentAir, which has developed scents specifically designed to enhance themed rides at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

"We are growing at 40 percent, 40 percent of which is fashion retail, while two years ago fashion retail was only 5 percent of our growth," says Christopher Pratt, UK managing director of ScentAir, which scents stores for Bloomingdale's, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Jimmy Choo, Juicy Couture, H&M and Mango, among others.

But the scents ScentAir creates for fashion retailers have less to do with triggering purchases than they do with building brand identity, says Pratt. “For us and our clients, it’s not about directly increasing revenue, but about customer experience and developing a more emotional connection with customers, which is particularly important in the age of the Internet.”

Some of ScentAir’s clients, like H&M and Calvin Klein, use their own branded fragrances, though slightly reconfigured, to scent their spaces. But ScentAir also creates brand-specific fragrances that are specially designed for scenting retail stores. For British high street brand Oasis, the company created a scent using notes of freesia, jasmine, tuberose, rose mugat and citrus, while for Hugo Boss, they used a smooth, woody fragrance to match the brand’s minimal store design. For Bloomingdale’s, ScentAir created different scents for different departments — coconut in swimwear, lilac in lingerie and “powdery” scents in infantwear — which are reportedly so popular that shoppers often request to buy them for their own homes.

Dawn Goldworm of 12.29 is both an experienced nose, who has created a number of well-known fragrances and an expert in the use of scent as a marketing tool, the topic of her New York University master's thesis. "I wrote a thesis on what became known as olfactive branding." After graduation, in 2009, Goldworm asked long-time friend Gabriele Corto Moltedo, whose parents founded Bottega Veneta, whether she could scent his first handbag store in Paris: "He said 'Okay, I have no idea what you're talking about, but sure.' And I told him, 'Your clients are people who stay at the Ritz, who shop at Colette, they have branded scents, you should have one too.' So we scented his shop and it got a phenomenal response. A few months later, I was sitting with Alex [de Betak] of Bureau Betak and he said, 'Why don't you scent the Rodarte show?' So we did. It was then that I asked Samantha to join the project and 12.29 was born."

12.29 offers bespoke services to each of its clients. "The scent [we design] is solely based on the identity of the brand. There's a creative process I take them through and we dissect all of the brand cues — the aesthetics, the sound, the shapes, the target market — and I translate that into a smell, so the sky's the limit on what you can use." For the men's specialist shirt store Pye, for example, Goldworm designed a crisp fragrance reflecting the brand's signature white shirt, using orris, the root of the iris flower, contrasted with woody papyrus, pink pepper, smooth sandalwood and fluffy musk. For Corto Moltedo, a leather goods brand whose founder has roots in both a youthful New York scene and Italian luxury goods, she created a modern eau de cologne with soft leather notes.

Successful retail scents must also take into account geography and culture. “[While working as a researcher at Avon] I was able to study every market in the world, so that I was able to understand olfactive preference,” says Goldworm. “Scent preferences are based on food, baby products, sun tan lotion and the consumer products you grow up with and your environment,” she explains. “In China for example, they like things that are very unintrusive, very soft, very transparent — and because there’s so much pollution outside, they need something that smells fresh; but not fresh in an American way, which would be clean, and not fresh in a British way, which would almost be like commercial laundry detergent,” she adds. “The Chinese need something fresh, which is almost like fresh air.”

Overly strong scents can backfire. In 2010, Abercrombie & Fitch's in-store scent, ironically named "Fierce," was being delivered at levels that drew protest from a group named Teens Turning Green. The habit of using too much scent can occur when store employees become desensitised to the smell of their environment and, as a result, increase the amount of fragrance diffused in the store, according to Julien Pruvost, director of Cire Trudon, famous for its candles but also a provider of scents for retail clients, including The Kooples. "It's easy to go over the top without noticing, because you will get used to any scent, so staff members lose their recognition capacity, so it's probably too strong after a while," he says. "It's undeniable that [the scent in The Kooples stores] is strong — and they've heard that criticism before."


According to Goldworm, a successful in-store scent should be subtle. “In a retail environment, the scent can’t be very strong at all. It almost has to be unnoticeable when you enter the space. You should just remember how nice of a time you had last time you were there,” she says.

In fact, more than any other, smell is the sense that’s most closely connected to memory. According to studies, more than 65 percent of people can remember a memory associated with a scent after a period of one year, so a mere whiff of an artfully delivered fragrance can trigger the recollection of a previous in-store brand or product experience.

“The retailers that are most successful in the olfactory area have developed scents that are subtle, unique and brand appropriate,” concludes Musmanno. “It's the companies who are thinking about stimulating every sense that are growing most quickly — and scent is, really, the final frontier.”

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