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Smelling and selling

October 11, 2010
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Of all the ways to professionally wash a vehicle, self-serve has the greatest opportunity to engage the senses and drive the overall consumer experience. Of all the product attributes, I believe scent is least understood by today’s professional carwashers.

Did you know more of your DNA is dedicated to the sense of smell than any other function you perform? Did you know odor molecules are detected by your olfactory nerve, which is a part of your brain?

The trickiest aspect of your sense of smell is the “chemical sense.” This means you don’t detect absolute levels of odor, you detect changes in odor.

This leads to some rather interesting and frustrating phenomena.

When you first enter a new room, you will notice its odor. However, after approximately 20 minutes, the odor will be undetectable. This is called “adaptation.”

Some people think the sense of smell has been overloaded and they are physically unable to detect the odor. That leads us to looking at another phenomenon.

When you enter your house, you will not notice its odor. If you enter your home with someone who has never been to your house, they will detect an order.

If you enter your home with a visitor and there are cinnamon buns cooking, the odor molecules from your home and from the buns will reach your olfactory nerve and the visitor’s olfactory nerve. The visitor will experience both the smell from your home and the smell from the buns. However, you will only experience the smell from the buns. What is happening?

Every scent can be categorized by its character and strength. Character denotes the type of scent: fruity, floral, vanilla, spice, etc. Strength denotes the level of the specific character that is present.

When you enter for the first time a space that contains a scent, the odor molecules are detected by your olfactory nerve in the back of your nasal cavity. The olfactory nerve sends a message to the brain through your memory. At this point, your brain is profiling the fragrance (both character and strength) and filing the information along with your emotional state and the location of the scent. Your brain then lets you “experience” the fragrance.

As you remain in the space, your olfactory nerve continues to detect the odor and compare it to the profile that has been stored. During this initial “learning” phase, the brain focuses more on the scent and begins to better predict the profile it is going to receive from the olfactory nerve. As it gets closer to detecting the scent, the apparent strength of the fragrance begins to grow. The revised profile is stored in memory.

Once the odor is “learned,” the profile coming from the olfactory nerve will match the profile stored in the brain. At this point, the brain lessens the impact of the experience and eventually, the scent appears to be undetected…yet the olfactory nerve continues to detect the odor. This process occurs in about 20 minutes.

Notice, the process could begin again if the odorant suddenly grew twice as strong. However, the brain would only detect the difference in strength. That is, you would only experience the difference between the actual strength and the level to which you had adapted.

This same process occurs in a location experienced repeatedly. Whether it is your home, office or a friend’s home, your brain profiles the odor with the location and, after learning the odorant, lessens your ability to experience it. However, instead of 20 minutes, this habituation process takes 20 days.

Carwashing & scent
Over the last ten years, I’ve seen numerous examples of people getting frustrated with the effects of adaptation and habituation in the carwash market. For instance, when a person puts a fragranced product on the line, they experience a high concentration of the fragrance in the equipment room. They may even get the product on their person or wipe the product near their nose.

Once they have detected the fragrance at a high strength, the nose is actively working to learn the fragrance at the high level. When they go out to the bay to smell a more dilute version of the product, they are going to have an extremely difficult time detecting any scent. Notice, the worst thing these people can do is open the container and immediately take a deep inhale of the concentrated product.

As for habituation, this will occur when someone spends too many days at a site or wears the same fragrance for extended periods of time. It will also occur faster as you increase the strength of the fragrance or use the same character of fragrance in multiple products. Whether it is too much time in one bay or the equipment room doubling as an office, the more you experience the same smell in the same location, the harder it will be to detect the fragrance.

Selling the scent
Here are some ways to help your customers and sell product based on scent:

Direct attention to smell with signage: Our sense of smell is very complex. A lot of smells go unappreciated because the brain can’t properly categorize the smell. In fact, some of the same fragrances are used for women and air fresheners. However, the experience is different because the names of the products set your brain up for a different expectation.

Direct attention to smell with color: Another way to help the customer notice a difference is with a visual cue. Again, the color can set the brain up for a different expectation. For example, a lemon scent will give a different experience if put in a yellow product as opposed to a blue product.

Change your fragrance regularly: Even if the change is slight or includes a color change, altering the fragrance will keep your most loyal customers from learning the fragrance well enough to lessen the impact.

Enclose the space: In-bay automatics with both doors closed are the best place to detect a fragrance. Tunnels are the worst and drive thru self serve bays are the same as tunnels.

Using the scent
Working with fragrances can be difficult. Here are some ways to help lessen your frustration:

Remove yourself from the bay for 20 minutes: You can’t rush this process. It takes about 20 minutes for your sense of smell to reset itself on a new odor. Professional perfumers clear their noses by smelling their shoulder and upper arm.

Have someone else hook up fragranced chemicals. This will keep you from encountering the high level of fragrance.

Waft fragrances: If you have to smell the product, keep your nose away from the opening and waft the odor molecules towards you with your hand.

Close the door to the equipment room: This is the number one reason self serve owners can’t smell their products. The equipment room is open and the odor molecules are everywhere.

Cap all products that have fragrance: Equipment rooms tend to be warm. Fragrances are volatile and their ability to evaporate increases with increased temperature. All products with fragrance should be capped with the chemical feed line coming through the hole in the center of the cap.

I hope you now have an appreciation for how complex your sense of smell is and how much it is misunderstood.

After all, smelling is not believing.

John Lenhart works at R. Lewis Technologies, Inc. He has formulated products for Procter & Gamble, Dow Chemical, Dial Corp. and SC Johnson Wax. John can be contacted at

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