Two customers smile at a barista in a coffee shop

Disgust and discernment: How smell can affect your customers’ emotions

Several years ago, psychologist David Pizzaro ran an experiment on the streets of New York, USA. He recreated the smell of human flatulence and asked passers-by to have a smell, in order to reveal the profound power of disgust. As individual after individual sniffed, made a face, and walked away, David was struck by just how universal the experience of disgust really is.

This emotion is a potent trigger for a lot of human behaviour, which is understandable given that it evolved to protect us from illness and death. Before humans had developed any theory of disease, disgust prevented contagion by making us shy away from biologically harmful things like vomit, faeces and rotting meat. But the remit of disgust has broadened since then, as humans are now a super-social species on a cooperative and crowded planet. Disgust isn’t always a response to something physical and it can operate in public places: public bathrooms in particular. This is something Initial has been at the forefront of for many years, and has conducted various quantitative studies about, in order to explain the impact of washroom hygiene on behaviour and perception.

Human responses and washroom management

To help businesses understand the necessity for effective washroom management, an insight into human emotional responses is crucial. Initial wanted to understand whether the impact of scent of emotional responses was actually bigger than we think they are. So it conducted a study – The physiological impact of public washroom hygiene – which focused on the science behind people’s reactions and how people feel. It also looked at the extent to which different public washroom elements impacted people’s behaviours on an unconscious level.

48 participants were recruited to walk around a bad-smelling or a pleasant-smelling washroom. The conditions of the cubicles ranged from a clean cubicle to unflushed faeces and overflowing Feminine Hygiene Units (FHU). The results found a 40% increase in emotional impact when people were faced with a bad vs a good smell. This was present across all cubical conditions, even if the cubicle appeared clean and hygienic.

washroom smell

Bad smell amplified the physiological reactions to visual signs of poor hygiene, with people having a 39% increase in emotional impact when they encountered an overflowing FHU, compared to a clean cubicle and a 28% higher emotional impact when they encountered paper on the floor and the toilet seat up. Furthermore, eye tracking showed that 91% of people looked around to detect the source of poor hygiene when they encountered a bad smell, which allowed other elements of the washroom to be questioned and criticised. From a physiological perspective this is fascinating – as it means that our sense of smell can unconsciously impact what we see: or what we think we’re going to see.

washroom smell

But what does this mean in practical terms? Multi-sensory perceptions have long been known to influence our behaviour and feelings: one only has to look at the world of scent marketing and retail interiors to understand this. But disgust is a more potent emotion, and far more reactive. As a result, should businesses not be paying more attention to good air care solutions in order to attract and keep their customers happy?

The consumer and public washrooms

It’s clear that consumers will go to lengths to avoid coming into contact with germs in public washrooms. For some, it means not touching things directly (a previous Initial survey found that 34% of consumers avoid touching things in washrooms). For others, it means avoiding the establishment altogether. We live in an age where word of mouth and online reviews can make or break any business. A simple tweet can turn off customers from your store. It stands to reason that customers avoid returning to establishments that they feel don’t meet their criteria: previous research from Initial found that 62% of respondents would leave or not return to a business with dirty-smelling washrooms. Air care that can neutralise and freshen malodour is crucial to ensure that customers are left with a pleasant memory of your brand and their experience of it. It is vital for business owners to step up and provide facilities that will provoke positive emotional responses.

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Jack Lyons

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