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Building a Multi-Sensory Retail Experience


It takes a lot of work for retail brands to deliver a remarkable experience. However, it can be done by making sure the environment provides a sensory experience. A sensory experience affects a human’s sense of sound, sight, touch, smell and taste. Retailers often naturally focus on sight, primarily caring about how the space looks. But what they don’t realize is that the look and feel of the environment encompasses a lot more than simply how it appears.

In order to create a distinct and intentional sensory experience for consumers, retailer should pay special attention to the feel of the space and appeal to consumers’ senses of sound, smell and touch. Since retail operators often serve customers with diverse motivational drivers and backgrounds, it’s important to hit on enough factors to create a remarkable experience.

Sound: Different retail outlets function best under different noise conditions. Therefore, retailers need to decide up front what they are looking to establish in the space. Is it the creation of a festive, social vibe, or a more quiet and serene shopping experience? It all comes down to brand messaging. Once retailers decide on a goal, they can use an intentional combination of specific music along with specific material selection focused on acoustic control.

Smell: People often rely on their sense of smell to determine whether they will stay and shop. For example, if a consumer enters a local candle shop and the smell is overwhelming, they often will leave because of the myriad aromas hitting their nose. This overabundance of scents can sometimes leave shoppers no choice but to exit the store. However, if done right, retailers can control the smell within their store and give consumers a more subtle sensory experience that will make them want to shop.

Scents can be established in a variety of ways, but keep in mind that understanding the pressure is key: the retail environment should allow air to enter rather than escape. This prevents an overwhelming sea of scents compiled in one space. On the other side, scented air can be pumped into the store through the HVAC system to create a smell that is appealing to guests.

Touch: There are two ways consumers can experience the sense of touch: literally and figuratively. A person can physically touch different finishes in your retail environment based on surfaces that feel natural, solid, textured, soft, hard, plush, layered or comfortable. And, the way these textures look can even affect your guests’ “sense” of touch. These literal implications set the tone for the way your retail establishment may feel to the customer.

A person’s figurative sense of touch may also be impacted by their perception of personal space. For example, if merchandising areas are properly spaced to fit within the store, guests would probably feel cozy and secure. However, if items are positioned cluttered among a lot of different products, consumers will likely feel overwhelmed.

Retail operators typically approach this sense of touch in two different ways. While some go out of their way to define a customer’s personal space, others breakdown the definition of space to make their establishment feel more integrated. How retailers approach this sense of touch will be determined by the type of environment they are trying to create.

Sensory experiences exist almost everywhere in your retail store, whether that is deliberately planned or not. Executing an experience that touches on each sense can be a challenge, but should always be intentional. We’ve found that it’s best to break them down into their own experience rather than tackle them all at once. This way, you have a better idea of where you want to go and what you want to accomplish with each.

Steve Starr is president of Starr Design, a retail and restaurant architectural and branding firm based in Charlotte, N.C.

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