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Sights, sounds and smells affect cravings, USF professor confirms

Published Jul. 26, 2012

NORTH TAMPA — Feel like grocery shopping?

Well, are you sitting under bright lights? Are you listening to soft music? Is the smell of bacon wafting anywhere in the vicinity?

Believe it or not, those elements could factor into the choices you make. That's the conclusion from research by University of South Florida marketing professor Dipayan Biswas.

"It almost always happens at a subconscious level," Biswas said. "You know you like something, you don't know why. You just enjoy it."

Biswas has found that the tastes people are drawn to are affected by their other senses.

His findings follow studies of thousands of people's behaviors over about three years — through lab experiments and in experiments in food courts, cafeterias or restaurants.

While Biswas' research has been published in academic journals, it also has obvious implications on real-world food marketing — the sights and sounds and smells that entice us to buy, or not to buy, certain things.

For instance, people are attracted to more unhealthy choices when the lights are dim. A certain type of light music makes people want to buy or eat sweeter foods. If you're hungry and you smell food before you see it, you're more likely to buy it.

The smell of bacon is particularly enticing — and not just in buying food but in enticing men to buy traditionally manly things, like lawn mowers.

Sequence matters, too. If people sample two kinds of soda, they almost always say they prefer the last one they try, Biswas said. Eating something cold after eating something hot makes people overestimate the amount of calories in both.

"When you go to a grocery store, there are different ways they can manipulate you," Biswas said. "Where they control the ambience, they can manipulate the sensory inputs you are exposed to."

And that could have an impact on what you buy, he says.

Rich Thomas believes it.

Walking into Sweetbay Supermarket on Swann Avenue the other day, Thomas, 41, said he has no doubt that sights, sounds and smells affect what he buys.

"I mean, if you're comfortable, you want to stay longer, and you buy more," Thomas said.

That's especially true for him when store employees are cooking up samples. The aromas always make him hungry — even, said the vegetarian, when it's meat.

"I usually don't take the samples," he said, but that doesn't matter. The scent still seems to make him want to buy more.

Sama Knowles said colorful produce displays affect her the most. The bounties of food arranged so beautifully at Fresh Market remind her of her native France.

Knowles, 40, tries to combat impulse-buying with a detailed grocery list, but sometimes she can't help it. Especially, she says, when she's hungry.

Or when the bakery is taking hot croissants out of the oven.

"It's the smell, it's the sight, it's hunger," Knowles said. "I always go to that croissant."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

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