Is Nostalgia Fostering Better Mental Health?

It was pure nostalgia. The classic car cruise-in was a hit, judging from the size of the crowd. Classic and antique cars were parked up and down Main Street in Galax, Virginia, and more were circling the block in an impromptu parade. Radios blasted 1950s Doo-Wop and Rock n’ Roll; every 20 feet one song would segue into another. As I turned a corner, there it was: my first car, a 1959 Chevy Impala with its horizontal tail fins, teardrop taillights and “spaceship” dashboard. With no power steering, it handled like a tank and was difficult to parallel park. The car was just eight years old when I bought it (for $350). It wasn’t the least bit sexy and none of my friends were impressed by it; in 1967, muscle cars ruled. But I loved that car, sexy or not. Seeing this one brought back fond memories.

Which is exactly the point of having a classic car cruise-in. Such car shows are driven by sentimentality; people attend solely for the purpose of reliving a part of their youth. This trend isn’t new. Nostalgia (pardon the pun) has been around for a while. Television shows like “Happy Days,” “That 70’s Show” and “Mad Men” have proven to be hits in each of the past three decades. Oldies radio stations have been broadcasting the “hits of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” for the past 30 years. Hollywood’s focus on comic book heroes has proven to be their most profitable genre. Social media sites like Facebook and Classmates abound with high school and college groups, where former school chums can re-connect and remember the old school and the old neighborhood.

Nostalgia is good for business

That day, Galax’s half-dozen antique shops were capitalizing on the narcotic of sentimentality as well; they were all full. As I browsed through the antique stores, I overheard bits and pieces of conversations: “Hey, check this out; I used to have one of these”; “Wow, remember this?”; “I haven’t seen one of these in years.” Some folks were buying, some were browsing. On that day, memories were at high tide, and everyone was enjoying floating on its waves.

Nostalgia may be a “modern” craze, but there was a time when it was considered to be simply crazy. About 300 years ago the term was coined by Johannes Hoffer, a Swiss physician. The original definition of was “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” The diagnosis was used to explain the melancholy felt by immigrants and soldiers fighting on foreign soil. As recently as the 1980s “nostalgia” was still defined as a malady in some medical textbooks (although they dropped the part about demons). It wasn’t until 1999 that modern research began and the results astonished the psychiatric establishment. In research led by Constantine Sedikides of the University of Southampton, it was discovered that nostalgia:

• Counteracts loneliness, boredom and anxiety

• Makes people more tolerant of outsiders

• Inspires generosity

• Enables couples to feel closer

• Makes one feel warmer in a cold room

How to trigger memories in your customers

Wouldn’t it be great if you could bottle nostalgia and serve it to your customers as they walked through your door? Well you can — almost. Additional research on nostalgia demonstrated that there are ways to consistently trigger a customer’s fond memories.

J.M. Vingerhoets of the Netherland’s Tilburg University found that playing music was the quickest way to induce sentimental feelings. Of course, the individual listening to the music must have some youthful connection to it. Mozart is terrific and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik captures my imagination, but it doesn’t give me any warm fuzzies; that takes Crosby, Stills and Nash. When you play music in your shop, match the music to the era of the items you’re selling (or the age of the group browsing in your store).

In my December 2012 Behind the Gavel column for Antique Trader Magazine, “Smells Sell,” I discussed the effects of fragrances on the mindset of shoppers. Research shows that the second-highest memory trigger is our sense of smell. Dr. Alan Hirsch, head of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, calls this effect “olfactory evoked recall.” Baked goods like cookies and bread lead the list of memory inducers, followed closely by bacon, meatballs and spaghetti sauce. More proof (if more is needed) that bacon improves almost anything.

Memories can also be triggered by sight (photos, etc.) and tastes. By far, the most effective – and most controllable – memory inducers for retailers are the senses of hearing and smell.

Here are a few “nostalgia” marketing techniques that are being employed by dealers:

1. Install an antique-looking popcorn machine, and keep it warm. The smell of popcorn quickly permeates a store and creates a relaxing mood.

2. Separate your vintage goods from your antique goods, and keep oldies music playing in your vintage display area (softly; it shouldn’t be heard more than 10 feet away).

3. Have photos of nostalgic items silkscreened onto T-shirts (along with the name of your shop) and offer them for sale. Browsers who aren’t willing to fork over $100 for a vintage game might pay $20 for a tee – and advertise your store everywhere he goes. A couple of years ago, Cap’n Crunch cereal offered a nostalgic Cap’n Crunch T-shirt “in adult sizes only.”

4. Create a collection of nostalgic photos, etc. on, and feature them on your website and Facebook page.

Although many modern brands have jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon, the marketing concept is naturally suited for antiques and vintage dealers. Best of all, it’s easy to predict what will become popular in decades to come. University of Surrey psychologist Erica Hepper demonstrated that nostalgia levels are highest among young adults (25 to mid-40s), drop off during middle age, and return again as one approaches retirement. If you want to attract customers who are 28-41 this year, you’ll need to stock pop-culture items from the late 1970s.

Commerce aside, nostalgia is also a good remedy for “the blues.” The next time you’re having a “blue” day, employ the nostalgia cure: Take a break, put on some of your favorite oldies music, pop some popcorn, grab a beverage and pull out a photo album. It works for me; it should work for you, too.

Previously published by Antique Trader Magazine

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