#retail Retail Marketing

How Nike, Glossier, and other retail aces appeal to all 5 senses (yes, even smell)

By Saffron Lord, Senior Spatial Designer



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May 30, 2024 | 9 min read

For The Drum’s retail focus week, Designwerk’s Saffron Lord looks at the brands leading the IRL retail renaissance with multi-sensory design.

The blank outline of a hand against a crayon-drawn rainbow background

Present sense: How are retailers using all 5 senses to remake physical stores? / Katie Rainbow via Unsplash

Bricks-and-mortar retail is having a renaissance.

We’re all visually exhausted from endless digital interfaces and swipe-ups that make purchasing so convenient as to feel hollow (yet another parcel delivered, causing another puzzled murmur of ‘what’s this one?’). The result: physical retail is back in the spotlight. But it’s not the retail of old, where Gruen-transferred layouts weave you to a till with a heaving basket. No, today’s retail revolution is focused on something much more long-term: emotional connection. Brands are out to immerse you, engage you, and convert you into advocates.

How? They’re doing it through the senses. Yep, even smell.

Research from Wunderman Thompson (now VML) found that 63% of consumers want brands to provide them with multisensory experiences, with a whopping 82% expecting as many of their senses as possible to be engaged when experiencing something new.

With the cost of a spot on the high street at an all-time high, brands are optimizing their spaces with creative experiential design that wins attention and retention. Design-led activations, multi-sensory spaces, and immersive events are leveraging the connection between our innately human sensations, our memory, and emotional responses. Done right, this can create experiences that don’t just stick in our minds, but in our hearts too.

Feast your eyes

Visual merchandising is not new. It plays a crucial role in capturing the attention of shoppers, no matter the product. But it’s an itch digital has struggled to scratch, despite opportunities for design on every interface. E-commerce sites are falling all around us.

Sight fundamentally works in 3D and, happily, so do retail spaces. Lighting, color, shape, object and projection can all work hard in-store to create variation and interest. Take the Nike’s epic recent AirMax Day, inspired by a London car boot sale. Aside from ticking every box in experiential design, it leveraged light, graphics and color to create a feast for the eyes, spotlighting art objects, mirrors and nail bars above the product.

Remember, sometimes, the experience is the product.

Turn it up

Remember Big Topshop? We do. The soundtrack to your shopping experience was spun by a DJ, making us all feel 100% cooler than we really were as we bought skinny jeans and club dresses.

Thus, high street retailer Topshop made itself more than a transactional space; it became a destination, and the sound design brought it all together, integrating the store with the lifestyle its audience was feverishly trying to foster.

Music and sound set the tone, putting the memory-making part of your brain into action. As ASMR takes over TikTok, experience-master Glossier has already begun integrating this insight to retail spaces. Expect others to follow.

On the tip of your tongue

There’s a reason you’re handed champagne when you’re buying your Rolex. The foods and drinks we consume come with their own associations about who we are and what we stand for; they’re highly effective agents of history, culture and lifestyle.

Take Veja’s recent collaboration with North London’s coolest sommelier, Top Cuvée. More than just a complementary brand partnership, the freshly-poured natural wine (this summer’s drink du saison) turned the store into a summer-nights soirée in a way visuals alone could never achieve. Attendees will forever associate that sparkly taste and party with the brand (and themselves in the brand).


It’s an often-heard comment in pubs and restaurants: “I wish they’d bring back actual menus”. The tactility we humans crave helps us assess not only quality but personal connection, and is a deciding factor in purchase behavior: product tactility has always been a key distinguisher for physical retail.

Bricks-and-mortar stores can enhance that connection and imbue the space with brand storytelling by considering touch in physical design. Take Balenciaga’s now iconic pink fur drench or Akin Atelier’s design of Melbourne’s Camilla and Marc store that brought natural textures to surfaces and materials from floor to ceiling.

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Eau de purchase

Olfaction is our most powerfully evocative sense – for emotion, memory and mood. Brands can use associative scents in store, like Nike’s use of fresh-cut grass scent in athletic wear sections, or the smell of leather in shoe departments.

Or they can use a completely unique smell that will define a customer’s connection, like Glossier’s signature scent You, wafting through every store. Scent design can make customers stay longer, feel more positive, and act emotionally.

Ultimately, it’s about connection, as Aesop found when it created ‘sidewalk tea’, a mix of lotion and hot water that evaporates to lure in passersby with a pleasant aroma. Smell is a powerful tool to get people feeling. From that point, they’re open to making connections, memories, and purchases.

Consumers want to be included. They want community, real-world moments, and stories that make the brand more than a product. Experiential design that taps into the five senses is the fastest way to enrich your brand with tactile, emotional, and memorable experiences that transcend the need for immediate till-point purchases. Convenient purchases can be made online. Only in store can you make memories.

For more deep analysis of the heroes and villains of retail in 2024, head over to our focus week hub.

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