[Pricing Nugget #013] It Smells Like Christmas: The Power of Powerlessness

Imagine entering your favorite store, and you recognize a breeze of cinnamon and vanilla in the air. A feeling of warmth strikes you.

In the next aisle, you find the product category (e.g., pullovers in apparel) of your choice with premium and non-premium product options.

What do you think about your product choice?

Researchers found that warm scents make customers perceive a greater sense of social density (i.e., it appears more crowded), making them feel more powerless.

To compensate for this powerlessness, customers resort to purchasing premium products to underscore their social status and restore their perceived power (technical term "power-compensatory preferences").

A higher product price serves as a means to signal a higher social status.

The researchers found in multiple studies involving actual customer purchases that warm scent (cinnamon, vanilla) vs. cool scent (peppermint) changed customer behavior.

More specifically, when customers were exposed to warm scents (vs. cool scents)

  • they spent a more money on premium brands,
  • bought more items per trip, and 
  • spent more money overall.

What does it mean for your business?

If you have a portfolio of mixed products/ brands or a luxury brand store, set up essential oil diffusers in your environment to nudge customers towards status-inducing product choices.

What do oil diffusers and rude salespeople have in common?

Another study found that rude sales representatives might have a similar effect as oil diffusers: The rudeness makes customers feel powerless, so they develop a need to restore their social status and power. These "power-compensatory preferences" make customers more likely to buy premium and luxury products.

What does it mean for your business and for the hiring policies of your sales managers?

I don't know – I am just sharing insights here 🙂


Madzharov, Adriana V., Lauren G. Block and Maureen Morrin (2015). The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior. Journal of Marketing, 79(1), 83-96.

Ward, Morgan K. and Darren W. Dahl (2014), “Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for the Brand,” Journal of Consumer Research, 41 (3), 590–609.