Casinos get a whiff of dollars and scents
Forget TV ads and giant billboards, the next time you feel an urge to shop or gamble, your nose may be controlling your wallet and there's nothing you can do about it.
The use of perfumes to attract and keep customers in a shop or on the gaming floor is not new to Europe or the US, but in Hong Kong and Macau the phenomenon is in its infancy.
While patronage at Macau casinos needs little encouragement, the use of perfumes inside the premises poses questions about the power and ethics of scent marketing.
Olfactory stimuli, or scents, are unlikely to affect a pathological gambler so it's the occasional casino visitor that is most at risk, says Sudhir Kale, who has researched the impact of smells on consumer behaviour and is a marketing consultant for major Macau casinos including City of Dreams and Star World.
'The interesting thing is that our sense of smell is the only one that circumvents our rational sense of thinking and connects directly to the emotions. The olfactory lobes connect directly to the limbic system in the brain and that's where all our moods and emotions come from.'
An experiment in Copenhagen 15 years ago shed light on the link between perfumes and punting.
'It found that with one particular perfume, people stayed about 30 per cent longer in the slot machines area,' Kale said.
Dr Alan Hirsch, neurological director of the US-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, oversaw one of the world's first experiments with smells in a casino at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1994.
He documented the findings in a 1995 paper that found an average 45 per cent revenue increase from slot machines in areas exposed to a pleasant aroma, with one machine showing an 89 per cent increase.
The smell emitted was at a 'supra threshold' - meaning it was noticeable. When the dose was increased, the revenue followed suit.
Since the 1994 experiment, Hirsch has conducted dozens more in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Indian reservations with similar results. The researchers insisted that pleasant smells were not typically used to attract new gamblers, but to encourage people to linger longer.
'Scents enhance risk-taking behaviour, and make people feel better about themselves and feel more lucky. [But] the odours had no effect on pathological gamblers because they gambled it all away anyhow.'
Certain smells also evoke a sense of nostalgia, which can induce a sense of security and risk-taking.
'It works in the area of the brain called the amygdala that covers fear, aggression and risk-taking ... so it can reduce a fear of loss.'
Cultural references play an important factor in smells so importing aromas from the US to Macau was not a smart move.
'The odours that work for us in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Indian reservations may not work in China because of different cultural perspectives of smell. We know the odours that the Japanese prefer are very different to those Americans prefer.'
Hirsch said scent marketing in general was becoming more common at US casinos.
'The big change that we've seen over the last 20 years is a major change towards vanilla,' he said, because it was a smell prevalent in the memories of many Mexican Americans, a group that has grown steadily in the US.
'In Mexico, vanilla is used so much more than chocolate [both are native to Mexico] because the weather is warmer in Mexico and vanilla doesn't melt.'
Chinese casinos in the future might smell like jasmine tea or cooked rice, Hirsch said.
'We anticipate that there would be something culturally specific that may remind people of their childhood or induce a feeling of safety and security that would be more appropriate for Macau than Las Vegas.'
On the ethics of using perfumes in casinos, Hirsch said it was only a problem if the perfumes were used subliminally.
'The reality is the casinos are a form of entertainment, not a place to make money,' he said. 'No one can force you to do something you don't want to do.'
David Schwartz, director of the Centre for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said it was 'impossible to quantify' the impact of perfumes on gambling.
'Last year, the Palms casino in Las Vegas introduced a scent that actually drove players away; after a month, they had to stop using it,' Schwartz said.
'I've personally known many people who are repulsed by the scent at the Venetian, which is extremely strong. On the other hand, places with pleasant scents are more amenable to staying and playing. I've seen some retail studies referenced, but never on actual game play.'
In Macau, most of the major casinos confirmed the use of perfumes throughout their properties, with some using custom-made scents.
A spokeswoman for Wynn Resorts said: 'Wynn Macau has a unique scent, China Rain, which is injected into the property's air conditioning system. It was chosen to refresh the senses as soon as guests enter the property, and has been used since our opening in 2006. It is the same scent as used at Wynn Las Vegas and guest feedback is consistently positive.'
The MGM in Macau had used natural floral scents for about three years, a spokeswoman for the casino said. Aromas that filled the gaming floors and the Grande Praca, a large central plaza, were mild, light and changed regularly.
'We change the essence according to seasonal change or festival or events happening at the Grande Praca to match with the themes,' she said. 'In the casino, we adopt also natural floral essences with a mild and light essence.'
She said MGM's use of perfumes was to 'even out the polluted air from smoking, to help turn the atmosphere into a comfy environment and also one that's healthy for both guests and our employees'. Any links between perfumes and gambling revenue were 'two different issues and sort of irrelevant'.
MGM properties in Las Vegas had different systems 'in terms of using floral essences' and there had been no complaints about the perfumes, she said.
A Melco spokesman said its City of Dreams and Altira Macau properties were 'continually looking for a comprehensive approach ... including the use of scent delivery systems that can bring new and unique gaming experiences to visitors to Macau'.
Success in the air
It's said scents can alter one's mood - and aversion to risk
The average increase in slot machine revenue when a perfume was used in the Las Vegas Hilton in 1994: 45%