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How to improve customer experience in retail

How to improve customer experience with store atmospherics

How to improve customer experience with store atmospherics

Whether a company is looking to increase their income or simply boost their brand reputation, improving customer experience at the point of sale is always of the utmost importance on a daily basis. Moreover, in the modern market, brick-and-mortar businesses really need to be utilising all of the tools in their arsenal in order to compete with online industries.

As concerns about the death of retail increase in the wake of e-commerce growth, there is an increasing necessity for shop owners to understand the very real benefits they offer over their online contenders. One of the main advantages of having a traditional shop environment is the level of control that this provides over the in-store customer experience.

How to improve customer experience and increase sales with your in-store atmosphere

In-store retailing boasts the ability to manipulate the physical environment that customers experience.

Academic research confirms that these experiences of in-store environment can have a huge impact on customer satisfaction. The bottom line, of course, is always profit and growth, and enhancing the customer experience ultimately increases sales.

Throughout this two-part article, we explain what customers want and why, how businesses can manipulate and improve the customer experience through in-store atmospheric factors, and how customer experience can impact on sales. Knowing how to improve customer experience in retail stores can make a real difference to your sales figures, particularly during peak seasons.

What are store atmospherics?

There are a number of ways in which a customer’s impression of a business is formed. In a bricks and mortar business, these impressions are primarily formed on the basis of the environment around them.

Retail environments are a “group of cues, messages and suggestions that communicate to buyers” and the retail atmosphere is what causes the consumer evaluation of their environment [1].

The term atmospherics was coined by Kotler in 1973, and refers to how commercial premises are designed, including the layout and general ambience. Kotler explained how customers are not only purchasing a physical product, they are buying into the retail experience as a whole, including how they experience their physical environment [2].

How can store atmospherics affect shopper purchases?

Consumer behaviour explained: encourage approach behaviour in customers

Approach behaviour

If a customer has a positive experience of the retail environment, they are more likely to demonstrate 'approach behaviour'. This can include entering the premises, spending more time there, approaching displays, picking up products, and making a purchase.

Understanding consumer behaviour: avoidance behaviour

Avoidance behaviour

On the other hand, if a customer has a negative experience of a store, they are more likely to demonstrate 'avoidance behaviour'. This can include avoiding entering a store or looking at a particular display, or even leaving and potentially not returning.

With this in mind, the primary goal of the retailer or business owner is to try and improve the atmospherics of a store in order to increase the approach behaviour of customers and decrease their avoidance behaviour, ultimately improving sales.

Retail atmospherics: atmospheric variables

The concept of atmosphere as a main driver of customer satisfaction has also been studied in detail from the perspective of how the human senses perceive the environmental stimuli. This area of research is often referred to as "sensory retailing". This term effectively refers to the same ideas as store atmospherics does, both highlighting the importance of curating an in-store environment which appeals holistically to the senses of the customers.

Our mind map below (inspired by the work of Turley [3] and Bohl [4]) illustrates the different areas of store atmospherics, aka atmospheric variables, which can all impact on the customer experience:

Store atmospherics in retail explained with examples of atmospheric variables

How store atmospherics affect the customer experience

Researchers have identified two intersectional metrics which affect customer experience: arousal and pleasure.

Arousal is a physical or psychological state referring to the way the mind and body responds to sensory stimuli. In an in-store customer experience, this might include lighting, music being played, or the level of signage and distractions. The level of arousal a customer is experiencing affects their pleasure levels.

It has been found that customers have the highest pleasure response in a medium level of arousal. For example, dim lighting and meagre signage could be confusing and stressful for the customer. Conversely, if the lights are too bright or there is too much signage, this may also be rated as stressful, resulting in avoidance behaviour [5].

Avoid retail shopper confusion

Business experts Garaus and Wagner introduced the concept of “retail shopper confusion” (RSC) [6]. They conducted experiments in which they altered atmospheric variables at the point of sale, to induce and measure RSC.

They found that the main causes of retail shopper confusion are complexity and conflict in atmospheric factors in-store. For example, overcomplexity of signage or incongruent merchandising displays can induce confusion in shoppers.

These findings are significant as they demonstrated that the customers' experience of RSC led to avoidance behaviour, with a negative impact on footfall and revenue.

Without the confusing atmospheric elements, however, the customers’ arousal levels were balanced and they rated the environment as being more pleasant as well as demonstrating more approach behaviour. Therefore, avoiding RSC and making the experience easy and pleasant for the customer is of the utmost importance.

How to use store atmosphere and ambience to improve customer experience in retail stores

So far, we have identified that atmospheric and sensory factors can affect a customers’ arousal levels.

Concurrently, we found that a customers’ arousal levels can determine their pleasure in the environment and therefore their approach and avoidance behaviours.

In summary, to improve customer experience in-store, retailers must cater to the atmospheric needs and desires of consumers at the point of sale. Creating a positive customer experience encourages visitors to engage more, contributing the the overall goal of increasing revenue.

Companies can record outcomes with technology such as footfall trackers, gathering feedback and monitoring average order value to measure conversion rates. This indicates the success of your store design strategy.

To help summarise the most crucial findings from our research, we have developed the flow chart below. This provides a more visual breakdown of the process by which businesses can reduce negative experiences, increase positive experiences, and work toward the ultimate goal of creating repeat customers and increasing ROI.

See Part 2 for further advice on what customers want and how to increase approach behaviour by adapting your point of sale for the optimum retail atmospherics.

How to improve customer experience with atmospheric variables, a flow chart guide

Kira Swales

Kira Swales is a copywriter for UK POS. With over six years’ experience in e-commerce and copywriting, and many years in the retail sector, Kira loves to take a deep dive into topics in order to provide readers with the latest research in point of sale and merchandising. Read more of her in-depth guides on POS in our Knowledge Hub.


1. Farias et al., ‘Store Atmospherics and Experiential Marketing: A Conceptual Framework and Research Propositions for An Extraordinary Customer Experience’, International Business Research, Vol 7 (2014), pp. 87-99.

2. Kotler, ‘Atmospherics as a marketing tool’, Journal of Retailing, Vol 49 (4) (1973), pp. 48–64.

3. Turley and Milliman, ‘Atmospheric Effects on Shopping Behavior: A Review of the Experimental Evidence’, The Journal of Business Research, Vol. 49, Issue 2 (2000), pp. 193-211.

4. Bohl, Patrick, ‘The effects of store atmosphere on shopping behaviour-A literature review’, Corvinus Marketing Tanulmánok, Vol 2. (2012) pp. 1-24.

5. Ebster and Garaus, Store Design and Visual Merchandising: Creating Store Space That Encourages Buying (New York: Business Expert Press, 2015), p.116.

6. Garaus and Wagner, ‘Retail Shopper Confusion: An Explanation of Avoidance Behaviour at the Point-of-Sale’, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol 41 (2013), pp. 407-408.