Wait a second. Before you read any further, answer this: what made you click on this article? 

Was it a rational choice that involved a cost-benefit calculation of how much time you’re going to spend reading it versus the valuable insights you might gain? Or did you just have a gut feeling that this article would be interesting? 

We're Not as Rational as We Think

Our understanding of purchasing decisions is based on both emotional and rational considerations. We consider rational information such as price, product quality, reviews and ratings, as well as emotional information such as the feeling a new iPhone sparks, the excitement over an upcoming vacation, or how appealing we find a dress in a window shop. 

Yet new research reveals that other surprising variables can significantly affect our decision-making process. These might include things like where we’re standing at the moment of purchase, which scents our noses detect, what music is playing in the background or whether we happen to be drinking a hot drink or eating ice cream. 

While we like to think that we know why we make the decisions we make, we are in fact controlled by hidden biological forces more than we would like to admit.

One study found, for example, that the smell of cinnamon is subconsciously linked to feelings of warmth, which in turn increases the attractiveness and the perceived effectiveness of a heat cushion. Another study found that the smell of leather in a shoe store, even from a spray can, led to more purchases. The delicate scent Nike uses in shops has led to an 80 percent increase in sales.

The Allure of Fresh Baked Bread

The section of our brain that processes smells is part of our brain’s limbic system, which is involved in memories and emotions. This is why smell has the power to trigger emotional memories. It is no coincidence that in nearly every supermarket, there is a bakery, which sends shoppers enticing smells of freshly baked goods, stimulating our appetite and motivating impulse buying of all food products. 

Sounds can also influence our shopping on a subconscious level. Wine stores which played classical music were found to sell more champagne compared to stores where pop music was playing.

It has also been found that intent to purchase increases when the orientation of a displayed object encourages interaction with that object. A slice of cake, for example, is seen as more desirable when the cake fork next to it is positioned towards the viewer's dominant hand. According to this theory, exposure to an object generates a mental simulation of the possible ways we can interact with it.

We Feel Faster than We Think

These findings have led to a paradigm shift. According to the theory of embodied cognition, decision-making is not limited to rational data processing, weighing the costs and benefits. Our senses and subconscious emotions play key roles in the process without us even knowing. 

For example, when we make a decision about buying a particular pair of shoes, we of course take into account the price, how we look in them and how often we will wear them. Yet we are also influenced by the aromas around us, whether we are standing or sitting, and whether we are hungry or sated, even though these factors have nothing to do with the shoes.

A study of how well we recall advertisements found that 34 percent of viewers in 1965 remembered the ads they were exposed to. In 1990 the percentage dropped to 8 percent, and in 2007 it was just 2.2 percent. 

The growing flood of information, goods and services mingle and merge in our memories, and we cannot separate one brand from another. When the brain is asked to choose a product from the multitudes that more or less share the same characteristics, the deciding factor will be the emotions and memories associated with that product. The higher the intensity of that emotion, the greater the chance of selecting that product. 

Compared to the rational system, which is slower and requires many cognitive resources, psychologically, our emotional path can process vast amounts of information more rapidly. So when a product is linked to a positive scent, our brains quickly create an association between this positive feeling and the product. Thus that product will be chosen much faster this way than through the computation of rational information. 

Learning Opportunities

In other words, we feel faster than we think.

Speaking to Emotions in the Digital Realm

In the digital sphere, there is an obvious limit to the sensory experiences that can be deployed. The challenge is to apply these insights and create as much cognitive involvement as possible with the senses available to us: sight and sound. 

Remember that experience is more than just what meets the eyes. The decision to buy a product is mediated by a number of unconscious factors that shape the customers’ final decision. We have to think of ways to create pathways to the consumer's emotions by involving the maximum possible subconscious pathways in the online interaction. We must take into account not only the attractiveness of the product, but also its spatial orientation, its interactivity, the specific words employed, the colors used to describe it and the specific emotion we want to trigger.

We have found that the ability to influence the design of a object generates emotional attachment that leads to psychological ownership, the feeling that something is “mine.” 

In the physical world, the opportunity to touch an object creates stimulation by activating the buyer’s touch receptors. With online purchasing, obviously the customer cannot feasibly touch the products. However, digital interaction with the product brings those same pathways to life. The selection of the product’s features, colors and shape generates feelings of control and ownership. 

According to research by Ann Schlosser of the University of Washington, interactivity in the context of virtual objects produces far more vivid mental images than text or static pictures. These mental images lead to greater customer engagement and higher likelihood of purchasing.

The use of humor is also extra helpful online, particularly when it comes to facilitating the acceptance of error messages. Delivering that message in a comical way encourages a greater investment of resources in a customer’s attempts to succeed in an action.  

Appeal to Customers' Senses

A multi-sensory experience is one of the most effective ways to create an unforgettable customer experience. 

Emotion is the basis of our experience of a brand, determining how we feel about the time spent on the site, how much money we would spend on the product and how often we will visit the site. Therefore, sensory stimulation is the key to enticing our customer and building a longterm relationship that will differentiate our brand from the competitors.

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