How Brands Are Using the 5 Senses to Guide Store Experience Design - Retail Innovation Conference & Expo

How Brands Are Using the 5 Senses to Guide Store Experience Design

The pandemic has inspired brands and retailers to rethink the roles of their stores. Because so many consumers found ease and convenience shopping online, brands have realized that their physical spaces need to differentiate, and deliver upon their promise, in new ways. That is why design teams, visual merchandisers and outside design firms are pushing creative limits and exploring new ways to make their stores helpful, engaging and memorable. We’re excited to feature some of these crafty execs at the Design:Retail Conference this May in Chicago, who will reveal how they’re employing new storytelling methods, cutting-edge tech and even embracing community-driven experiences to resonate with consumers.  
But if you can’t wait to get their tips and takeaways, we’ll give you a hint: a lot of these brands successfully tap into the five senses. Read on to see what we mean…


This is easily considered the top sense of store design. After all, a store is a visual, physical representation of a brand and its products. It combines brand colors, textures, symbols and technology to visually captivate consumers and draw them deeper into the experience. Glossier is a great example of a business that has a very strong visual brand. While all of its stores are distinct to the markets in which they’re located, there is consistency in colors, use of natural elements and that modern, airy environment we all know and love.  

Strategic questions to ask: The visual brand ethos should dictate the core of all store experience decisions. At this stage of the brainstorming process, ask your client questions that help get to the heart of what makes the brand unique in the market. 

  • How would you characterize your target customer?  
  • What symbol or product best represents your brand? 
  • What color best represents your brand? 
  • How would you best define your brand “vibe” or feeling you hope to evoke?


All five senses can evoke memories, but sound is arguably the most powerful. When a song from your childhood makes you smile immediately, that’s the power of sound at work. Brands and retailers use music and ambient sounds to create a more immersive store environment. For example, when you visit ULTA Beauty, there’s an excitement that may emerge when you hear stylists chat with clients and hear the sound of blow dryers whirring. Sound can also help create consistency between the overarching brand and a local, physical environment. When you go to Louis Vuitton, you don’t expect to hear heavy metal music. If you did, it would feel unexpected and jarring, and rightfully throw your experience off.  
Strategic questions to ask: Help brands and retailers think through the sound of their stores by digging deeper into their customer personas and their brand story.  

  • What kind of music does your target customer listen to? Who are their favorite musical acts and performers? 
  • What kind of environment are you hoping to create in stores (calm, exciting, edgy)? 
  • What level of traffic do you expect on a normal day? Do you plan to offer services that are more intimate and high touch, such as stylist appointments? 
  • Will there be any other ambient sounds that will “crowd” the store space? 


The top benefit of having a store is that it gives customers the freedom to touch, feel and test products. Physical spaces provide a level of context and clarity that no digital environment can provide. That is why top-performing brands and retailers always have a clear “touch and test” component of their in-store experience. The b8ta store concept is so powerful because it’s designed to support product testing and experimenting. LEGO’s New York City flagship store follows a similar model. It includes a multitude of sections that encourage shoppers to play and create. These elements feel like a natural extension of the LEGO brand and what makes it so beloved to consumers worldwide.  
Strategic questions to ask: While not every brand can copy the creative principles of LEGO, they can use the company as a source of inspiration. Dig into the stages of the buying journey and brainstorm ways to integrate touch into each phase.  

  • What role does touch play in the browsing process? 
  • Do consumers need to simply look at product features or actively test them? 
  • Are your products made of distinct fabrics or materials that help them stand out from competitors? 
  • Can your items be combined or customized to meet consumers’ needs? 
  • Can consumers touch, feel and test products on their own or do they need assistance from an associate? 
  • Are there any stylists or experts that can help improve the experience? 


Admittedly, this sense is a bit more difficult to apply, but brands and retailers are using taste to create a differentiated experience. Department stores like Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue have opened cafes and restaurants in their locations to encourage shoppers to spend more time there. While visiting an in-store café is far more convenient than running to an outside Starbucks, getting a table at L’Avenue at Saks feels luxurious, extravagant and truly unforgettable. These experiences are executed differently but are equally valuable to customers.  

Strategic questions to ask: We’re seeing more luxury brands, such as Tiffany and Fendi, opening their own culinary locations. But that’s not the only way to integrate taste into the store experience. Here are some questions to answer with your clients so they determine whether taste is an ideal sense for their store experiences:  

  • Do you develop or sell food-related items? 
  • Do you host classes or product walk-throughs that could include taste testing? 
  • Would having a café, quick-serve food location or restaurant be valuable for your customer base? How would doing so tie into your brand story and experience? 
  • Would it be more valuable to have short-term locations and pop-ups for your culinary experiences? 


Scents can enrich environments, helping them feel more calm, luxurious or even rugged. The smell of a store is the “cherry on top” of the overall experience, helping to bring the brand to life. Think of how Abercrombie & Fitch became known for its cologne-drenched stores. While some joked that you could smell an A&F store on the other side of a mall, it helped create a strong brand association and connection. When people smelled the cologne, they knew it was an A&F store.  

Strategic questions to ask: There are simple yet strategic ways to integrate smell into a store experience. Help your retail and brand clients find the perfect approach by focusing on the following questions.  

  • What scent conveys your brand and products? 
  • What scent represents your target audience (clean, earthy, leathery, etc.)? 
  • Is this scent available for purchase or something you’d have to outsource? 
  • Do you currently sell perfumes and/or colognes? Do you need to support a “testing” experience of any kind? 

Store design and strategy firms have the unique opportunity help retail businesses shape their experience strategies by focusing on what makes their brands (and their customers) unique. By focusing on the five senses, you can create highly curated and compelling store experiences that bring customers deeper into their unique brand story.

During the Design:Retail Conference, we’ll feature executive leaders across QSR, baby, home décor, tech and apparel, who will share their perspectives on the latest trends in store design, visual merchandising and storytelling. Executives from Lalo, Ring, Popeye’s and other brands will share how they’re applying new consumer behaviors and preferences in their store formats. Check out our agenda to see the topics we plan to address and register for the conference to dig deep into new design trends.  

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