Just inside the doorway of Marks & Spencer, there is a faint tang of Christmas. The cinnamon and spruce and warm vanilla are barely detectable, but they are there - one of the increasingly sophisticated tricks that shops are using this festive season in a concerted effort to entice us in to buy.
They need to. With hypermarkets and online shopping stealing their customers, high street names are using an amazing armoury of secret weapons to wrest back control of the Christmas market. Subliminal smells and tinted, concave mirrors that make you look tanned and thin can be the difference between a big buy - and walking on by.
So keen are stores to get this right that last year they spent £3.2bn - 1.3 per cent of all retail sales - on designs and refits. Today, The Independent on Sunday can reveal the dirty tricks - or more likely the sweet-smelling tricks - that high street stores are using this Christmas to encourage shoppers to spend more than we really want to.
The smell of Marks & Spencer is just the beginning. The tricks of the trade include light fittings that exude perfumes as the bulbs heat up; concave mirrors in fitting rooms that make customers look thinner and clothes more flattering; ditto rose-tinted mirrors that make a customer appear tanned and more attractive. Then there are the impulse zones - the areas at checkouts where shoppers have to go and which are piled high with tempting but needless extras.
Last week, The Independent on Sunday went undercover to Lakeside shopping centre in Essex - one of the largest in Europe - with Tim Greenhalgh, a shop design guru who has advised Britain's biggest chains.
"The shop window display had always been the important thing," Mr Greenhalgh explained. "What they're now doing is bringing that attitude into stores."
He pointed out the smells in M&S; impulse zones in HMV; Next's cross-marketing to encourage customers to buy not just a shirt but a jacket to go with it; the special end-of-aisle displays in Boots and others - called gondola ends - often paid for by the products' manufacturers.
Mr Greenhalgh, managing creative director of shop designers Fitch, with 20 years' experience in the industry, said: "There's a sea-change happening in the retail industry, partly because of the big new hypermarkets such as Tesco. You can buy groceries, fashion, Christmas presents, electrical equipment ...
The growth of the internet auction site eBay is also crushing the traditional store. "Ten years ago you would never have admitted you'd bought something secondhand," said Mr Greenhalgh.
That is why, this Christmas, the high street favourites are fighting back. The latest findings from the consumer research group Mintel show that British consumers are sick of shopping. Almost six in 10 of us aim to grab what we want and get away as quickly as possible. Just 16 per cent actually view shopping as an enjoyable pastime; the rest of us, apparently, hate it.
At Lakeside last week, shoppers seemed oblivious to the subconscious selling techniques. Among the cellophane boxes and the "cashmere-mix" in M&S, no one seemed to have consciously noticed the enticing smell of Christmas; they were too busy cautiously eyeing the sweater section and stalking Gifts for Men like Serengeti lions prowling towards a herd of cut-price gazelle.
For anyone prepared to stop their trolley and sniff, though, it was unmistakable.
According to Mr Greenhalgh, we should be celebrating this determined new drive to seduce the shopper. What's emerging now are the "Generous Brands," he says. "They give you a free mint. Or, like Starbucks in the US, they're all hot zones; you can use your laptop wirelessly."
Some companies have pre-empted the Mintel report; 37 per cent of women, for example, wanted to see more space to try on clothes. When Oasis made some of its fitting rooms 20 per cent bigger, sales in those stores rose by 20 per cent. "It never used to be like that," says Mr Greenhalgh. "It used to be, 'What can we get out of you?' But now people expect a bit more."
More importantly, he warns shops against cynically exploiting their customers. "What we call people now is prosumers - professional consumers," he advises. "What they want is great service from people who know what they're talking about." He adds, darkly: "They can sniff a marketing trick a mile off."
* Massive tailbacks left thousands of people who had hoped to start their Christmas shopping early stuck in traffic for hours on Friday night. Jams were caused by the part closure of the M25 following a crash involving a fuel tanker and a lorry. The 29-year-old driver of the tanker was pronounced dead at the scene after his vehicle overturned, spilling 33,000 litres of fuel across the motorway.
NINE CHRISTMAS SELLING PLOYS
1. the sweet smell of success
It could be coffee in bookshops to make you linger, or bread-baking smells pumped through supermarkets to make you hungry. Ralph Lauren stores emit scents of leather and wood. A car showroom has just been designed that uses the clean smell of mint.
2. the rose-tinted concave mirrors
In certain fashion stores the mirrors are literally rose-tinted. The colour makes you look tanned. They can also be slightly concave, to make you look thinner, or tilted to make you appear taller.
3. the soft-lighting lingers in lingerie
Next time you're shopping, look up. A vast technological display of ambient lighting and spotlights makes packaging twinkle and subtly affects your mood. In M&S's lingerie department the spotlights are a subtle boudoir pink.
4. the sale: it's all in red and white
Red and white are the subconscious colours of a sale. Look at the "two for one" boards and the "buy one get one free" posters in any shop. It isn't a mistake that Woolworth's logo was designed in those colours.
5. 'eye level is buy level'
Want to know what a shop is really trying to sell you? Look straight ahead. "Eye level is buy level", says the old cliché. Which is why, in the electric shavers aisle in Boots, the brands displayed at eye level are three times more expensive than the ones on the bottom shelf.
6. gondola cards make a splash
Nothing to do with free trips to Venice, unfortunately, but the front-facing aisle ends that predominate in shops such as super-markets. The more prominent and isolated display is so sought after that companies will often pay shops to place their products there.
7. the known value items (or kvi)
These are products such as milk, soap or plain white T-shirts that are fairly consistently priced. If your KVI is £1 cheaper than the next shop's, the customer will assume all your products are equally good value.
8. the impulse zone is all around
You've managed to wander all the way around the supermarket without being tempted into the sweets aisle - but you can't walk out without passing the checkout. And that's where you will find the impulse buys. In Next it's the powder pink Christmas gift suggestions. In M&S they've liberally scattered boxes of biscuits around the sock department. Everyone buys socks, which makes that the ideal place to offer shoppers the things they never knew they needed.
9. the cross merchandising
It's not for nothing that Next displays its "lead items" with matching accessories. Research shows that people will come into a shop and say, "I want what the third mannequin on the right is wearing". Hence, a jacket is shown with three co-ordinating shirts, trousers, shoes....