As this year’s shopping season reaches a crescendo, Business News Daily reports that the fastest way to a customer’s wallet may be through the nose. In a recent experiment, buyers exposed to a plain orange fragrance spent 20% more money than those who inhaled a blend of orange, basil and green tea. Similarly, researchers concluded that students can focus and problem-solve more quickly in the presence of simple (as opposed to mixed) odors. From my basic knowledge of what the humans of my time and culture perceive as single or simple odors, I’m wondering if the studies’ results might reflect identifiability or familiarity of a smell, rather than, necessarily, its lack of complexity. I suspect I’d buy as many socket wrenches at a hardware store steeped in a familiar, complex aroma–let’s say Amouage Lyric–as I would in a cloud of orange zest. In any case, the findings are useful to retailers who thought that just making their shops smell pretty might boost sales. Instead, it’s all about an unfussy fragrance intrusion fostering focused decision-making. This discussion of buying and selling against a backdrop of simple odors makes me even more attentive to ambient fragrance (orchestrated or not). It also triggers one of my favorite literary scent memories.
When I think of easy-to-identify shopping odors, overcooked apple comes to mind. That’s because warm apple smell permeates the first pages of Monsieur Vénus (1884), a novel that helped to earn Rachilde (née Marguerite Eymery) the nickname “Mademoiselle Baudelaire.” The story opens as protagonist Raoule de Vénérande gropes her way to a seventh-floor hovel, where she hopes to buy an arrangement of faux flowers to adorn an evening gown. As she opens the door, Raoule inhales a sickening blast of foreboding fruit: “the smell of apples cooking choked her and stopped her short at the threshold. No smell was more odious to her than of the apples, and so it was with a shiver of disgust that she examined the garret before revealing her presence” ( 7-8). Now that’s the smell of a decadent plot thickening.
Once inside, Raoule’s initial disgust–“That smell of sautéed apples was becoming unbearable to her” (11)–wanes in proportion to her waxing desire for flower-arranger Jacques Silvert. A long look at Jacques’ androgynous features facilitates Raoule’s reconciliation with apple-infused air : “But she was feeling better; the jets of hot steam from the apples no longer annoyed her, and the flowers scattered among the dirty plates even seemed to exude a certain poetry” (12). Catching a glimpse of Jacques’ tangled, golden chest hair, “Mlle de Vénérande fancied that she might indeed eat one of those apples without much disgust” (14).
To say that Raoule gives into temptation would be an understatement. In this fin-de-siècle Garden of Eden, where the apples simmer and flowers have no scent, Raoule de Vénérande makes a one-hundred-fifty franc purchase and buys into much more. Perhaps plain orange would have functioned just as well in this shopper’s smellscape, but you can’t put a price tag on metaphorical apples.
Further reading and notes:
Quotations are from Melanie Hawthorne’s excellent translation, which includes notes by Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable: Monsieur Vénus: A Materialist Novel. New York: MLA, 2004.
Image of Rachilde from Wikipedia.
On the use of smells to enhance learning, see also “Study Aid Bracelets make ‘Scents’ for Students.”