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Odor: An Unsuspecting Driver of Consumer Behavior

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If you’ve ever stepped foot in a grocery retailer and smelled spoiled produce or hopped into a rideshare with a lingering aroma, then you’re well aware of the adverse impact that malodors can have on consumer behavior. For brick-and-mortar retailers and other consumer-facing industries that conduct business in-person, odor can make or break a sale, and have a lasting effect on a consumer’s long-term relationship with a brand and ultimately, that brand’s public reputation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified this reality as consumers have become increasingly sensitive about in-person retail experiences amidst social distancing precautions. According to IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, in-person sales at non-essential retailers contracted by 75% in Q2 of 2020 alone. In addition, IBM estimates that the current global health crisis has propelled the seismic shift away from brick-and-mortar retail towards ecommerce by approximately five years.

As fewer consumers make in-person visits to retailers, those who do choose to visit stores have their senses heightened in order to remain safe and socially distant. While visual cues such as clean surfaces are obvious indicators of safety and cleanliness, odor cues, such as spoiled produce, play just as important a role in indicating a poorly maintained or inadequately sanitized retail location, and can negatively impact a consumer’s purchasing decisions.

To better understand the way odor affects consumer behavior in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aryballe recently conducted a survey to ask consumers how odors influence their decision-making. In the survey, 88% of respondents reported that odor can influence their purchasing behavior, citing a range of anecdotes from strong fragrance in a department store, clothing items that smell distinctly synthetic to over-ripened produce in a grocery store. An overwhelming 93% of survey respondents also indicated that smells evoke specific memories for them, further reinforcing the fact that odor can have a lasting effect on human behavior. 

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The Impact of Odor in the Post-Pandemic Economy

From virtual learning to remote work, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way entire industries do business, and brick-and-mortar retail is no exception. The global health crisis will undoubtedly have an enduring influence on the way consumers conduct themselves across all retail settings, and odor will always remain a key asset in a consumer’s decision-making toolbelt. 

So what does the future hold for brick-and-mortar retailers in this new consumer reality, especially once the pandemic subsides? While the shift toward ecommerce is certainly an irreversible trend, there are emerging technologies to help retailers build brand equity, retain customers and optimize the in-store experience. In the realm of odors, digital olfaction is one such technology that can help retailers maintain product quality and prevent foul odors from infiltrating the consumer experience.

Using biosensors, advanced optics and machine learning to mimic the human sense of smell, digital olfaction can identify and alert personnel of specific smells throughout a store, such as spoiled meat or rotten produce, and ensure product freshness for incoming and on-the-floor inventory. Technology that can notify personnel of specific areas in a store that need to be attended to — such as a certain aisle in the produce section — can help retailers utilize their existing personnel in the most efficient way possible.  

Outside of the retail industry, ridesharing is one other area where digital olfaction can help vendors maintain a consistent customer experience. Ridesharing, in addition to other transportation options like taxis, buses and subways, has seen its business dramatically decrease as a result of the global health crisis. In the first three months of the pandemic, Uber announced that its total bookings on rides plummeted by 75%. Digital olfaction technology can help rideshare vendors assess air quality, allowing them to validate an acceptable level of odor — whether they be malodors or residual cleaning compounds — and ultimately boost consumer confidence. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the irrefutable influence that odor has on consumer behavior across industries. In order to compete and thrive in the post-pandemic economy, successful brands will need to find new ways to positively shape the consumer experience both digitally and in person.


Sam Guilaumé is CEO of Aryballe, responsible for the overall strategic direction and investor relations for the company. Prior to Aryballe, Guilaumé was the co-founder and CEO of Movea, growing the company to the leading motion sensing technology and eventual acquisition by InvenSense, the leader in inertial sensors for consumer electronic applications. Guilaumé brings over 20 years’ experience in the microelectronics industry to the Aryballe team.

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