Twenty years ago, aromatherapy was known only to a very limited group of people. Today, it is one of the most popular holistic health modalities.
Essential oils have entered daily life. Folks use them to create non-toxic cleaners and bug sprays, experiment with them in cooking to add flavor to dishes, and make cosmetic products to support hair and skin.
There is a ton of ongoing research on the use of essential oils in other fields. Horticulturists test essential oils for pest management, food scientists evaluate them as natural preservatives to extend the shelf-life of food products, and microbiologists study them to find new ways to combat bacterial infections including antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
And recently, I stumbled upon claims that essential oils can be used to attract customers, influence their opinion, and more effectively sell products. Is this simply a myth or is there some truth to the claim?
Intrigued (while still skeptical) by this idea, I researched recent studies on the psychological effects of essential oils. I learned that, through the interaction with the limbic system (the brain’s mission control for our emotions), essential oils can strongly influence mood and aromatherapy might be an effective marketing tool.
Studies have demonstrated that proper scenting (choosing the right oils, blends, and aromas in waiting rooms, storefronts, and offices) improves customer experience, encourages customers to spend more time in a store or restaurant, and can possibly increase sales. Here are the most interesting findings:
1. Aromatherapy in the Retail Environment
A careful selection of essential oils can create a unique environment that may encourage customers to linger in a store. So what essential oils should we use? One study provided some clues.
The researchers tested 26 different essential oils in a store selling different types of products.
Citrus essential oils,
- Lemon Citrus limonum(Risso)
- Bergamot Citrus aurantium (L.) var. bergamia
- Orange Citrus sinensis (Osbeck)
followed by the mint family
- Peppermint Mentha ×piperita (L.)
- Spearmint Mentha spicata (L.)
made participants feel more comfortable in the store!
Birch Betula lenta (L.) and rosewood Aniba rosaeodora (Ducke) also ranked well at making shoppers feel more at ease.
The researchers found that participants exposed to the aromas were more likely to make a purchase or visit the store again. “Scenting” was particularly effective when selling outdoor and décor items, but had negative effects when selling books.
1. Store Scenting Tips
When creating an aroma for a store, consider the target audience. For example, in general, you would want to pair an essential oil like vetiver Vetiveria zizanioides (Nash) with products for men, like a face shaving kit or men’s clothing, while geranium Pelargonium graveolens (L’Her.) and lavender Lavandula angustifolia (Mil.) may be more effective paired with products for women such as lingerie. Neroli Citrus aurantium (L.) var. amara, ylang ylang Cananga odorata (Lam.) var. genuina, and patchouli Pogostemon cablin (Benth.) were considered “gender neutral” in the research.
It’s important to note that aromatherapy is just one part of the shopping experience. There are many psychological factors that determine a potential customer’s buying decision.
It’s All About Holistic Ambience!
Your store’s aromatic ambience should match décor and music. For example, one of the studies investigated the interplay between aromatherapy and the music played in the store. The customers’ evaluations of their shopping experience were enhanced when the ambient scent and background music matched.
For instance, researchers found that scenting the store with lavender L. angustifolia (low arousal scent) combined with slow tempo music led to higher evaluations than using lavender paired with high arousal (fast tempo) music. Respectively, scenting the store with grapefruit Citrus paradisi (Macfad.) (high arousal scent) combined with fast tempo music led to higher evaluations than using grapefruit with low arousal music.
2. Aromatherapy in Restaurants
Aromas may even influence a restaurant patron’s behavior. One study conducted in France tested two essential oils—lavender L. angustifolia and lemon C. limonum––to compare effects of low and high arousal scents. When exposed to lavender essential oil (low arousal), customers were likely to spend more time in the restaurant (about 15 additional minutes) and spent 20% more on the final check. Lemon essential oil, however, did not appear to make a significant difference.
Thus, stimulating scents, like citrus and mint, essential oils may not be effective in restaurant settings. Calming flower scents like clary sage Salvia sclarea (L.), lavender L. angustifolia, and ylang ylang C. odorata are absolutely worth exploring.
3. Aromatherapy in Waiting Rooms
Waiting in a dental or medical office is rarely a pleasant experience. Patients are often stressed and worried. But there’s hope for those of us who sweat bullets in the minutes before a root canal!
Recent studies have demonstrated that aromatherapy can help to reduce anxiety and improve mood in patients waiting for dental treatment. Lavender L. angustifolia reduced anxiety, made patients feel calmer, and even offered a much-needed mood boost. Orange C. sinensis essential oil was also noted to be comforting in waiting rooms.
4. Aromatherapy as an Ice Breaker
Are you starting school soon? Maybe a new job? Want to make sure you’re cool, calm, collected, and friendly?
One study conducted by the researchers from Cornell University showed that diffusing geranium P. graveolens essential oil in a room significantly increased the number of social interactions between strangers.
Participants more often engaged in discussion, and were even more likely to smile at each other and establish eye contact. While only one essential oil, selected for its pleasant smell and ability to raise alertness, was studied, others may have the same effect. I recommend taking a look at citronella Cymbopogon nardus (L.) and palmarosa Cymbopogon martini (Roxb.) essential oils. There are a lot of similarities in the composition of these three essential oils (monoterpenols—citronellol, geraniol, linalool— are the major constituents), suggesting they may have the same effect. Citronella essential oil was also shown to exhibit harmonizing effects on brain activities that may support a person in an unusual and, potentially, stressful environment, such as in the room full with strangers.
So can essential oils improve customer experience? The research shows that if used properly, aromatherapy just might make customers happier and potentially increase revenues in certain businesses.
Of course, essential oils are not magic potions for business success. There are a lot of factors that play into the buying process. But making your storefront, spa, or waiting room smell wonderful certainly couldn’t hurt!
You might also try experimenting with different essential oils to create your own “signature” blend. ACHS President Dorene Petersen has a fantastic blog post on how to get started with blending. This could establish a “memory” effect. Customers might recall the store visit, dinner at your restaurant, or educational meeting when they get exposed to a similar aroma. The memory will send them an automatic reminder that might bring them straight back to your business.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I am a Professor and Research Analyst at American College of Healthcare Sciences, the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are my own. This blog may contain affiliate links. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.
 You can find a lot of great recipes in Weigh Less, Eat Like Royalty by Menkit Prince
 I strongly recommend reading Aromatherapy vs MRSA: Antimicrobial essential oils to combat bacterial infection, including the superbug by Maggie Tisserand if you are interested to learn more about this topic.
 Spangenberg, E., Crowley, A., & Henderson, P. (1996). Improving the Store Environment: Do Olfactory Cues Affect Evaluations and Behaviors? Journal of Marketing, 60(2), 67. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1251931
 Spangenberg, E., Sprott, D., Grohmann, B., & Tracy, D. (2006). Gender-congruent ambient scent influences on approach and avoidance behaviors in a retail store. Journal Of Business Research, 59(12), 1281-1287. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2006.08.006
 Mattila, A. & Wirtz, J. (2001). Congruency of scent and music as a driver of in-store evaluations and behavior. Journal Of Retailing, 77(2), 273-289. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/s0022-4359(01)00042-2
 Guéguen, N. & Petr, C. (2006). Odors and consumer behavior in a restaurant. International Journal Of Hospitality Management, 25(2), 335-339. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2005.04.007
 Lehrner, J., Marwinski, G., Lehr, S., Johren, P., & Deecke, L. (2005). Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduce anxiety and improve mood in a dental office. Physiology & Behavior, 86(1-2), 92-95. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2005.06.031
Kritsidima, M., Newton, T., & Asimakopoulou, K. (2010). The effects of lavender scent on dental patient anxiety levels: a cluster randomised-controlled trial. Community Dentistry And Oral Epidemiology, 38(1), 83-87. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0528.2009.00511.x
Zabirunnisa, M., Gadagi, J., Gadde, P., Koneru, J., Myla, N., & Thatimatla, C. (2014). Dental patient anxiety: Possible deal with Lavender fragrance. Journal Of Research In Pharmacy Practice, 3(3), 100. http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/2279-042x.141116
 Zemke, D. & Shoemaker, S. (2008). A Sociable Atmosphere: Ambient Scent’s Effect on Social Interaction. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, 49(3), 317-329. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1938965508320626
 Sayowan, W., Siripornpanich, V., Piriyapunyaporn, T., Hongratanaworakit, T., Kotchabhakdi, N., & Ruangrungsi, N. (2012). The Harmonizing Effects of Citronella Oil on Mood States and Brain Activities. J Health Res, 26(2), 69-75.