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Cinnamon smell prompts us to buy more expensive stuff, study finds

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Does this spicy smell spur you to shop more? (iStock)

Stores assault the eyes and ears with blowout sales and catchy jingles to woo shoppers in from the street, but it looks like they should go straight to our noses if they want to make the sale.

Warmer scents like cinnamon can spur us to buy fancier, more expensive products, a team of researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology, City University of New York and Temple University   have found.

But it’s not because cinnamon makes us feel richer; it’s because it makes us feel weaker.

“People smelling warm fragrances such as cinnamon feel that the room they are in is more crowded, and feel less powerful as a result,” the study’s authors say. “This can lead them to compensate by buying items they feel are more prestigious.”

To conduct the study, scientists experimented with different scents. They discovered that cinnamon, a “warm” fragrance, makes us feel a bit sad and powerless, so a little retail therapy provides a dopamine boost, “activating the pleasure wires in our brain and making us feel better about ourselves,” according to the report. 

The findings have important implications for stores seeking to boost revenue inexpensively. Stores in the United Kingdom have already experimented with bakery and chocolate smells to get customers to spend more, but this study may help explain what pushes consumers to more expensive products and luxury brands.

“We show that retailers can easily manipulate social density perceptions with a subtle and relatively inexpensive application of ambient scenting in the store environment," write the authors of the experiment.