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Conquering new frontiers in research on store atmospheres: Kinetic and synesthetic qualities

Conquérir des nouvelles frontières dans la recherche sur les atmosphères des magasins : qualités cinétiques et synesthésiques
Christian Julmi


L’étude sur l’atmosphère des magasins et l’effet sur le comportement des consommateurs a pris une importance croissante dans la recherche sur la gestion du marketing. Dans cette perspective, notre article obéit à deux principaux enjeux. Premièrement, il vise à montrer que le paradigme S-O-R est aussi largement accepté qu’inapproprié pour penser l’atmosphère des magasins. Deuxièmement, il veut présenter le concept développé par le philosophe allemand Hermann Schmitz comme un paradigme alternatif prometteur pour étudier les conditions atmosphériques des magasins en évitant les écueils du modèle S-O-R. Comme les concepts de Schmitz n’ont pas encore été intégrés dans la théorie du marketing, cet article propose une perspective novatrice.

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1Since Kotler’s (1973) work on atmospherics as a marketing tool, the study of store atmospheres and their effects on the consumer’s reaction has become a significant area within marketing research. Kotler understands the atmosphere as “the air surrounding a sphere” or “the quality of the surroundings” (p. 50) and dissects the perception of atmospheres into the main sensory channels sight, sound, scent, and touch. Within these sensory channels, the atmosphere can then be further examined using attributes such as colour, brightness, size, and shapes for the visual dimension. Besides Kotler, the works from Baker (1987) and Bitner (1992) are commonly referred to when operationalizing stimuli. Whereas Baker distinguishes between ambient factors, design factors and social factors, the distinction from Bitner contains ambient conditions, space/function, and signs, symbols, and artefacts. Other, somewhat similar distinctions can be found in Turley & Milliman (2000), Vilnai-Yavetz, Rafaeli & Schneider-Yaacov (2005), Grayson & McNeill (2009), or Berman & Evans (2013).

2Empirical investigations of the store atmosphere usually rely upon the Stimulus-Organism-Response (S-O-R) model, according to which an (external) stimulus affects an (internal) emotional state leading to a specific behavioural response (Woodworth & Marquis, 1947; Mehrabian & Russell, 1974). The starting point for empirical investigations is thus a specific stimulus the customer is faced with. Building on the work of Mehrabian & Russell (1974), the emotional state can be and often is measured by the three independent dimensions pleasure, arousal, and dominance, which is why their model is called Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (P-A-D) model. Sometimes, the dimension dominance is omitted, because although some findings suggest an independence of the dominance dimension (Russell & Mehrabian, 1977; Yalch & Spangenberg, 2000; Yani-de-Soriano & Foxall, 2006), other findings reject such independence (Russell, 1979; Donovan & Rossiter, 1982; Donovan, Rossiter, Marcoolyn et al., 1994). Finally, the emotional state leads to a behavioural response. Here, Mehrabian & Russell distinguish between approach- and avoidance-related behaviour.

3Whereas the behavioural response is of little interest here, it is the dichotomous distinction between external stimulus and internal state that raises serious problems in conceptualizing the term atmosphere. Kotler distinguishes between the atmosphere and its perception. As mentioned earlier, the atmosphere refers to the quality of the environment as “the air surrounding a sphere”. The perceived atmosphere then is literally breathing this air which can be sensed differently by different customers. Hence, the atmosphere seems to belong to the external stimulus, which in turn provokes various individual internal states. From a phenomenological point of view, however, this is problematic. As a holistic quality, the atmosphere can neither be cut off from the environment (the atmosphere is perceived as belonging to the environment) nor from its perceiver (the same environment may evoke different atmospheres depending on the perceiver) without losing its fundamental (i. e., holistic) character (Schmitz, Müllan & Slaby, 2011; Griffero, 2014a; Griffero, 2014b; Julmi & Scherm, 2015). When, according to Kotler (1973, p. 50), “one hears a restaurant described as having atmosphere by which is meant that the physical surroundings evoke pleasant feelings”, it becomes clear that it makes little sense to talk about an atmosphere without someone being affected by its quality. The atmosphere is neither something that can be exclusively assigned to the external stimulus, nor something that can be exclusively located within an internal state. Whereas the external stimulus can be described and investigated using the S-O-R model, the atmosphere as a whole does not fit into such a model. The object of investigation and the underlying paradigm are therefore incommensurable (Julmi, 2015).

4Accordingly, it is not surprising that different authors come to different conclusions when it is about to locate the atmosphere either in the external stimulus or in the internal state. Some authors locate the atmosphere within the stimulus (Grossbart, Hampton, Rammohan et al., 1990; Turley & Milliman, 2000; Tombs & McColl-Kennedy, 2003; Yani-de-Soriano & Foxall, 2006; Rayburn & Voss, 2013). Babin & Attaway (2000, p. 91) even speak about the “physical atmosphere”. Other authors, however, assume that the atmosphere is a psychological variable (Buckley, 1987; Ghosh, 1990; Berman & Evans, 2013). Following this latter point of view, Foxall, Goldsmith & Brown (1998, p. 201) provide an alternative interpretation of Kotlers work:

As Kotler points out, consumers purchase a total product, consisting not simply of the physical item bought but the packaging, aftersales deal, advertising, image, and—most importantly—the atmosphere of the place in which the transaction takes place. Atmospherics do not, therefore, refer to the objective physical and social factors that constitute store image […] but to the subjective feelings these factors engender in consumers.

5The consequence of the obvious mismatch between atmosphere as the object of investigation and the (explicitly or implicitly) underlying S-O-R model is the detectable avoidance of the term “atmosphere” within the existing literature (see, for example, the review from Turley & Milliman, 2000). Whereas the term is frequently considered in headlines and introductions, it is rather ignored when things are getting more concrete. Symptomatically, Kotler, Keller, Brady et al. (2009, p. 679) start their section on “Service atmosphere” with the remark that “Atmosphere is a major marketing element” without any further use of the term throughout the whole chapter. If the term is neverthel