Tapping into the senses to harness the spirit of Christmas

Xmas Decos Honolulu style 2

Honolulu Christmas tree

In Inside Shopper in August I outlined some of the findings of GfK’s Project Rudolph ‘Evolution of Christmas Gifting’ study.

One of these was that retailers and brands need to do a better job of tapping into the diminishing spirit of Christmas and family togetherness to guard against the rising tide of perceived commercialism.

During a short vacation in Hawaii last week, a location not the most obvious Christmas destination, I spied a number of retail executions that evoked Christmas well beyond the usual decorations. What struck me was that they used more of the five senses, particularly smell and taste, than we typically see in Australian Christmas retailing, which is heavily reliant on sight and sound and little else.

Before I go into Christmas retail executions using the senses, let’s look at what the signifiers of Christmas are and how they might differ between the US and Australia.

What are the signifiers of Christmas?

Interestingly for such a conservative Christian country, in the US, the spirit of Christmas is almost secular (due to a long story I won’t bore you with here, partially to do with the ironically named American Civil Liberties Union ensuring that the US government can’t mandate holidays on behalf of any religion, which is why there is also no Good Friday or Easter Monday public holidays).

This means that Christmas in the US, like in Europe, is signified by winter (and to a lesser extent some of the foods and flavours are an extension of Thanksgiving at the end of November). The US ‘holidays’ mean snow, cold, pine trees, and therefore warming foods. Specific flavours and ingredients include pumpkin, cinnamon, (‘sweet spices’), ginger/gingerbread, candy canes, and peppermint. Sometimes these are combined, such as in the rise of pumpkin spice drinks (more about those in a minute).

What are the signifiers of Christmas in Australia? Traditionally adopted from the European, they may be things like pine trees, holly, red/gold/green colours, ham and turkey, pudding with brandy custard, although some butchers I talked to in Sydney who specialise in Christmas pre-orders mentioned the growth of traditional Aussie BBQ meats like steaks, sausages, and meat patties.

We need to understand from Australian consumers entrenched in Christmas what the signifiers are of the spirit of Christmas as it applies here, and talk to those. If that means beach cricket, so be it.

The 5 senses of Christmas

I’m going to start with the more traditional ones of sight and sound that are currently employed, but the bigger opportunities lie in smell, taste, and touch.

Xmas decos Honolulu 4SIGHT

The obvious one here is decorations – theoretically, anything red, gold, and green.

In Hawaii the Christmas decorations and colours have been customised to incorporate Hawaiian plants and themes such as orange and yellow hibiscus.

Australian retailers have traditionally been reliant on European style decorations – including blue, silver and white snow cues – to herald the beginning of the festive season, but there may be an opportunity to tailor these further to Australian flora and fauna. The Project Rudolph study indicated that retailers and brand manufacturers alike can do more to Christmas-ise their websites, both visually and aurally.


Christmas carols in the US, rather than being religiously-based (no Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Once in Royal David’s City etc here, although Silent Night gets an airing from time to time) are called Christmas ‘songs’ and are often winter-based. Think Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

On the pop side things, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time and Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas. On endless repeat. (The high rotation ersatz cheer of all this can grate after a while, I’m not for a minute suggesting we adopt this).

It is therefore somewhat incongruous in Hawaii, like it is in Australia, to hear lots of winter and snow-based songs when it’s a sunny 30 degrees outside. What interested me was that the Hawaiians seem to have a number of their own versions of some songs. The 12 days of Christmas, for instance, includes ‘six hula lessons, five big fat pigs, four pounds of poi, three dried squid, two coconuts’ etc.

This tailorisation reminded me that there is, in fact, a small canon of Australian Christmas songs that by my reckoning should be sought out and employed more often by retailers and shopping centres (albeit that ‘Six White Boomers’ was written and performed by the now controversial Rolf Harris).

Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf


Here’s where it gets interesting. Coffee chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf have introduced special Christmas products and blends. Starbucks are well known for their take home Christmas Blend, and punters actively watch out for it. For immediate consumption there are a number of products such as peppermint lattes. Starbucks now has five holiday drinks, the latest introduction being chestnut praline.

In fact, holiday flavours have rapidly become a thing in the US in a number of categories. An Associated Press article in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on December 4 listed a number of categories in which specific holiday flavours and scents have been produced, ranging from ChapSticks to Pringles to air fresheners (Scentsicles). The sensorial smell, touch, feel nature of Christmas products has also extended into candles and body lotions.

According to the article, the number of pumpkin flavoured fall drinks available doubled in the US between 2013 and 2014. Why? Emotion. “Flavors like candy cane and gingerbread are particularly popular because of the power scents and flavors have to evoke time spent with loved ones”.

Smell is the sense that’s linked directly to the limbic system and memory. The question for me is, what smells and flavours say it’s Christmas in Australia?


Starbucks continue their holistic Christmas offer with use of colour in their cups. You can have your peppermint mocha in a Christmas themed red cup or in a number of red, green, and gold cups which you can select from a literal wall of cups in their stores.

Starbucks round out their Christmas offers with a promotion, a number of multi-category displays including Christmas CDs, and gift cards.

In sum

The bricks and mortar store has the capability to be multi-sensory. Online can only deliver on sight and sound.

In a country where we are slowly moving away from the traditional ham, turkey, and pudding with brandy custard, and into seafood salads, what are the foods, flavours, and smells that best signify Christmas here? How can we best evoke the seasonal spirit of joy and togetherness through smell, touch and taste at retail?

Norrelle Goldring is head of shopper experience and retail performance at GfK. To purchase a copy of the Evolution of Christmas Gifting Project Rudolph report, call Norrelle on 0437 335 686 or email norrelle.goldring@gfk.com.

Starbucks Christmas products

Starbucks Christmas products


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