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Making Sense of Retail: Part II

Research detailing how retailers can enhance the brick-and-mortar experience for shoppers




This is Part II in a three-part series. For Part I, please click here.

Research Findings


The BHDP team examined the respondent data to identify which collages elicited positive feelings (calm, satisfied, excited, relaxed, fulfilled, stimulated or energized) and which elicited negative feelings (anxious, overwhelmed, unimpressed, bored, drained, frustrated or disappointed). These categories were used to determine overall positive and negative ratings of each collage.

For each collage, a score was determined based on a combination of total respondent reactions, the proportion of positive to negative selections and the frequency of positive answer choices. This allowed collages to be compared and ranked based on quantity and averages. For instance, the sense of smell, the Fresh/Natural Aromas collage received a high positive score because it had the most reactions survey-wide (412 reactions from 138 respondents), had a high percentage of positive reactions (94 percent positive), and a high selection of positive answer choices (for instance, 79 of 138 respondents chose calm).

The collages receiving the highest individual positive response scores were:

  • SOUND – Nature: 71 percent of respondents said they felt calm.
  • SMELL – Neutral/Natural Aromas: 67 percent of respondents said they felt calm.
  • SOUND – Gentle/Acoustic Music: 67 percent of respondents said they felt calm.
  • SIGHT – Natural/Beige Tones: 58 percent of respondents said they felt relaxed.
  • SMELL – Fresh/Natural Aromas: 57 percent of respondents said they felt calm.

Overall, negative responses accounted for smaller percentages of total responses than positives for most collages. However, there were spikes of certain answer choices that were well above the typical average.

The collages receiving the highest individual negative response scores were:

  • SIGHT – Complex/Monotone EGD: 26 percent of respondents said they felt overwhelmed.
  • SIGHT – Complex/Colorful EGD: 23 percent of respondents said they felt overwhelmed.
  • SOUND – Loud/Heavy Metal Music: 23 percent of respondents said they felt overwhelmed.
  • TOUCH – Sharp Edges: 22 percent of respondents said they felt overwhelmed.
  • SIGHT – Bright Colors: 20 percent of respondents said they felt overwhelmed.

In terms of positive sensorial experiences, three out of the four senses in this study ranked in the top five of most positive reactions. The perceived senses of sound of nature ranked first (sound), neutral scents ranked second (smell), gentle/acoustic sounds ranked third (sound), the physical sense and expression of natural/beige tones in an environment ranked fourth (sight), and the perceived sense of fresh scents ranked fifth (smell). The sense of touch did not rank in the top five for positive sensorial experiences. Shoppers selected calm and relaxed as the top positive feelings.


For negative sensorial experiences, three collages affecting the sense of sight ranked first, second, and fifth (Complex/Monotone graphics, Complex/Colorful graphics, and Bright Colors palette, respectively). The Loud/Heavy Metal collage (perceived sense of sound) ranked third and the Share Edges collage (sense of touch) ranked fourth. The sense of smell did not rank in the top five for negative sensorial experiences. Overwhelmed was the most commonly selected negative feeling expressed by shoppers.

Analysis of Findings and Research

The results from this research suggest the possibility of a subconscious effect on shoppers when their senses are stimulated in the physical retail environment. For example, respondents chose a contextually low amount of positive feelings in response to the fluorescent lighting image and prompt. Fluorescent lighting received a significant negative reaction and, notably, 20 percent of respondents selected overwhelmed, compared to the average selection of overwhelmed at 11.2 percent per collage. This suggests that fluorescent lighting can negatively impact a shopper’s in-store experience. Respondents preferred natural/beige tones and pastels, both of which had respondents selecting mostly positive responses. However, they reacted negatively to monochromatic and detailed wall graphics (Complex/Monotone EGD) which received the highest percentage of negative responses out of all collages. Respondents favored the perceived sound of Nature and Gentle/Acoustic music over both White Noise and Loud/Heavy Metal music while shopping. All four collages representing the sense of smell received high percentages of positive responses and low percentages of negative responses. Respondents answered more favorably for soft or hard surfaces, with sharp edges receiving a higher number of overall negative responses.

Positive Reactions

Collages were ranked by assimilating all the reactions from respondents. The top two collages were from the sense of smell category. The collage representing Fresh/Natural Aromas elicited 94 percent positive responses and the collage representing Rich/Enhanced Scents elicited 93 percent combined positive responses.

When respondents were asked why their experience during a recent store visit was positive at the beginning of the survey, one said, “The store smelled clean.” For both collages, most age groups and both genders chose calm and relaxed as the top responses.

Ninety-two percent of the reactions to the SOUND-Nature collage were positive, with, once again, relaxed and calm as the top two responses. More than 60 percent of 35-44-year-olds and both genders, as well as more than 53 percent of 25-34-year-olds, selected both relaxed and calm responses. Positive selections accounted for 90 percent of responses to the SIGHT-Natural/Beige Tones collage, followed by the SIGHT-Pastels and SOUND-Gentle/Acoustic Music collage which each received 89 percent positive responses.

Eighty-four percent of respondents selected positive reactions after viewing the SMELL-Neutral/Natural Aromas collage. The 45-54 year-old group especially favored to this sensorial experience as 70 percent selected relaxed and 85 percent selected calm. More than 52 percent of respondents selected relaxed and more than 64 percent selected calm for how the collage made them feel. The TOUCH-Hard Surfaces collage received 82 percent positive responses with more males than females selecting relaxed, satisfied, calm, excited, or energized. Similarly, more males than females indicated the SIGHT-Simple EGD collage (80 percent combined positive responses) made them feel excited or energized.


Other collages also ranking in the 80-90 percent combined positive responses included:

  • TOUCH-Soft Surfaces,
  • SMELL-Sterile/Clean Aromas
  • SIGHT: Spotlighting, No EGD, Warm/Ornate Lighting, and Dark Colors.

Negative Reactions

The collage representing SOUND-White Noise elicited the most negative responses with 145 reactions, or 48 percent of the total answers selected. Men and women had significantly different feelings about this collage as more males selected disappointed (17.3 percent compared to 4.5 percent) while more females selected overwhelmed (18.4 percent compared to 9.6 percent).

Thirty-four percent of respondents selected negative responses to the SOUND-Loud/Heavy Metal Music collage. When segmented by age, an average of 23 percent of respondents selected overwhelmed, with the percentage increasing as the respondents age increased. Conversely, while an average of 36 percent of respondents selected energized, the percentage decreased as age increased. Unsurprisingly, less than 20 percent from all age groups selected relaxed for how this environment made them feel. Respondent reactions to this collage were consistent with a response to the specialty store environments in the pre-qualification section with a respondent stating,“[the store is] too loud and I feel overwhelmed.”

Thirty-four percent of respondents also selected negative responses to the SIGHT-Complex/Monotone EGD collage. More than 30 percent of 45-54 year-olds said they felt both anxious and overwhelmed by this collage and 42 percent of the 55-64+ group felt overwhelmed by the collage. While only 7.5 percent of females felt fulfilled, 22 percent of males selected that response.

Negative reactions to the SIGHT-White Colors collage were selected by 23 percent of respondents, yet more than 40 percent of both males and females said they felt calm when looking at this collage. The SIGHT-Complex/Colorful EGD collage elicited 22 percent negative reactions with 33.3 percent of all age groups (average) feeling overwhelmed.

Other collages also ranking in the 20-48 percent combined negative responses included TOUCH-Sharp Edges, two collages for SOUND: Classical/Instrumental Music and Pop/Heavy Beats, and three collages representing SIGHT: Fluorescent Lighting, Gray Tones, and Bright Colors.


In summary, the shoppers surveyed preferred “softer” environments that made them feel calm and relaxed. In the pre-qualification section of the survey, many respondents used the words calm and relaxed in their open response describing recent positive experiences at specialty brand stores.

One Old Navy shopper said the store “just has a really fun and relaxed atmosphere.”

A Levi’s shopper said, “the nice calm setting and chill music,” contributed to a positive in-store experience. On the other hand, respondents used statements like “the environment was intense,” “the store is dark, disorganized,” and “the environment wasn’t welcoming at all” to describe their negative experience in a specialty store.

Respondents reacted positively to spotlighting as opposed to fluorescent and warm lighting. “It is bright and cheery,” said one Old Navy shopper while another stated, “There is lots of natural light.”

They gravitated toward environments with natural, beige, or pastel colors instead of bright colors or experiential graphics. Respondents also indicated a preference for nature sounds or gentle/acoustic music, rather than loud or heavy metal music or white noise. They desired neutral or fresh smells more than rich or enhanced smells and soft or hard surfaces rather than sharp edges.

One Athleta shopper summed it up by saying, “The store is aesthetically pleasing.”

For Part III, stay tuned to



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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