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    Mind Over Matter

  • From the colors used to the music played, environmental quirks in limited-service design today are planned around consumer psychology to create an experience that employs more senses than taste.

    Blimpie redesigned its store layout so customers could get freshness cues from an open prep area.


    To a lesser extent, smell can also have an influence over the consumer perception of and experience at each restaurant unit. More specifically, it can be a notable contributor when encouraging consumers to spend and eat more at a restaurant.

    “If you think about the smell of a Cinnabon outlet in an airport, as you walk by it’s like, ‘That smells good,’” Lombardi says. “It creates a craving, so it can be a very powerful motivator once you’re inside.”

    Piping the scent of a key, high-profit-margin product or even LTO item into the dining room or order queue could even be a driving force in subconsciously pushing guests to order the item. “So let’s say you walk into a quick-serve restaurant and one of their specialties is blueberry muffins,” says Stanya LeMay, design principal at restaurant design firm Interior Systems. “You want to be able to smell that blueberry muffin in the morning.”

    After acquiring West Coast bakery brand La Boulange, Starbucks announced it would begin baking breads and other bakery products in Starbucks stores, effectively changing the smell—and possibly the perception of the brand—within the store, while subtly influencing guests to try the new products and change their perception of Starbucks from a place for coffee to a breakfast and snack destination.

    “What it might do is elevate the idea of breads and pastries in the way Starbucks customers perceive the offer of that category by having the smell of fresh-baked items in the stores,” Lombardi says. “But if you’re not baking at the store level, you’re not going to get that.”


    Many brands are using a sense of touch—whether through plush seating, high-quality carpet, or wood tabletops—to create a more upscale, higher-end feel, making the unit more appealing to linger in for longer periods of time. “However, sometimes the operator’s strategic objectives may clash with the consumers’ objectives,” Blackiston says. “If you make them too comfortable, they’ll never leave.”

    When it comes to seating, Lombardi says, it’s key to match the comfort level to the brand’s demographic and need for turnover. “If you’re an urban concept where locals tend to meet, you may want to have more comfortable seating,” he says. At a high-traffic unit, however, a restaurant may need to design seats that, though visually pleasing, become uncomfortable after a certain amount of time in order to increase customer turnover and revenue.

    The quality of tables and tabletops requires special attention, too, as wood reads higher quality than metal and upholstered seats are perceived as more luxurious than plastic or fiberglass options. In addition, customers prefer carpet to hardwood floors, as it absorbs noise and has a better feel, Lombardi says. “Operators want hard floors because they’re easier to clean, but hard floors tend to show what debris is on the floor a lot quicker.”

    Even tactile items like packaging can affect customers’ thoughts on product quality and their experience with the brand, says Jill Ahern, senior director of consulting services for Packaging Technology Integrated Solutions. “They touch it, they hear it, so the multi-sensory aspects of it are important,” she says.