christmas psychology

The Psychology of Christmas Music and Holiday Scents

Christmas psychology“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”…or so you’d be told (aka sung at) if you stroll through a department store this time of year. Stores have a tendency to ramp up the jingle bells, break out their bins of shiny decorations, and pipe the smells of pine and sugar plum fairies[1]  I have yet to understand what a “sugar plum fairy” actually is.. But is it worth it?

As a kid, there’s no doubt that December was a magical time of year. This was also in the pre-Amazon era when most people went to real stores (malls, even) to do their annual Christmas shopping. Seeing the decorations and hearing classic Christmas tunes was enough to make me dream of the North Pole and the mystical majesty of it all. This, of course, was all while retail stores were soaking up a whole bunch o’ money.

So is there a connection between the manufactured Christmas spirit and people spending money? Some research in psychology suggests that there might be.

The Sounds and Smells of Christmas

Christmas psychologyOne study decided to answer the age old questions about holiday retail environments. Specifically, the researchers wondered whether there was an ideal combination of holiday music and scent in a retail store.

They told a bunch of participants that an undisclosed retail chain was considering opening a department store in the area. Each participant saw a slide presentation about the retailer and its plans for the new store. At the end of the presentation, everyone filled out a questionnaire with their impressions of the proposed store. Keep in mind, this study took place in November (but before Thanksgiving).

Before people came into the room for the study, though, the researchers set the mood. First, they’d turn on some music. Sometimes it was Christmas music, and sometimes it wasn’t. For half of the participants, Amy Grant’s 1992 album Home for Christmas would be playing, but for the other half, Amy Grant’s 1991 album, Heart in Motion would be playing. By the way–it’s not just that these researchers were Amy Grant fans[2]  …and they’re entitled to that opinion. It was important that the only difference was that the music was Christmas-y or not (but the singer and musical style was the same). For example, if people liked the store more with 1950s Christmas music than with Yoko Ono’s greatest hits, you might draw a different conclusion.

In addition to the music, though, the researchers sometimes gave the room a Christmas smell using “Enchanted Christmas” room spray. Other times, there was no specific room smell.

Did They Like the Store?

Christmas psychologyThe results of this study showed that people liked the store more when there was Christmas music in the background and a faint smell of Christmas, compared to when there was only one source of Christmas spirit. In these cases of Christmas music + Christmas scent, people not only liked the store more but also said they’d be more likely to visit the store and said that the environment felt more pleasant.

One thing that’s especially interesting about this study, though, is that people also said they liked the store a lot when there was no Christmas music and no Christmas scent! In a lot of ways, this combination looked the same as the combination with both Christmas music and scent. Weird, right?

The other way to think about these results is that having just one source of Christmas ambiance made people like the store the least. If the room just smells like Christmas, and there’s no other indication of a Christmas theme, it seems weird. If there’s Christmas music playing (in November, remember) with no other indication of a Christmas theme, it seems weird, too. But when the environment makes sense–either a clearly Christmas ambiance or a clearly normal one–that’s when people are most content.

Go Big or Go Home

So those malls from my childhood were onto something. Assault the visitor with Christmas spirit around every corner, and the joy will be undeniable! Using just a sprinkle of winter wonder here and there may do little in the way of promoting holiday sales. Instead, people are looking for a unifying experience when it comes to their buying adventures.

Now, it’s clearly worth noting that this is a study about 130 people’s judgments of a store based on a slide presentation. We want to be careful before drawing huge conclusions about best sales practices, but the evidence at least suggests that the story isn’t as simple as “Christmas music = good!” or “Sugar Plum Scent = good!” Instead, it’s worth thinking about the combinations.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  I have yet to understand what a “sugar plum fairy” actually is.
2.  …and they’re entitled to that opinion

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