Ever since Muzak started serenading patrons of hotels and restaurants in the 1930s, piped-in music has been part of the consumer experience. Without the throb of a synthesizer or a guitar’s twang, shoppers would sense something missing as they tried on jeans.
Specialists like Mood Media, which bought Muzak in 2011, devise audio programs to influence the feel of shops and cater to customers’ tastes. The idea is to entertain, and thereby prolong the time shoppers spend in stores, says Claude Nahon, the firm’s international chief. Music by famous artists works better than the generic stuff that people associate with Muzak. The embarrassing brand name was dropped in 2013.
Online shopping is an underexplored area of merchandising musicology. A new study commissioned by eBay, a shopping website, aims to correct that. Some 1,900 participants were asked to simulate online shopping while listening to different sounds. Some results were unsurprising. The noise of roadworks and crying babies soured shoppers’ views of the products on offer. Chirruping birds encouraged sales of barbecues but not blenders or board games.
Sounds associated with quality and luxury seemed to be hazardous for shoppers’ wallets. The study found classical music and restaurant buzz caused them to overestimate the quality of goods on offer and to pay more than they should. That backs up earlier research which found that shoppers exposed to classical music in a wine store bought more expensive bottles than those hearing pop.
EBay wants consumers to avoid such unhealthy influences when shopping online. It has blended birdsong, dreamy music and the sound of a rolling train — thought to be pleasant but not overly seductive — to help them buy more sensibly. Retailers could presumably counter by cranking up the Chopin.
“Classical music does seem to be the way to go” if your only interest is the narrow one of squeezing as much money as possible from your clientele, says the study’s author, Patrick Fagan, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London.
Few traditional shops are likely to use that tactic. H&M, a clothes retailer, airs “trendy, up-tempo” music from new artists, while Nespresso’s coffee boutiques go for “lounge-y” sounds, Nahon said. Grocery stores, with a broad following, play top 40 hits. The tempo tends to be slower in the mornings, when shoppers are sparser and older, and becomes more allegro as the day goes on.
Using the classics to set tills ringing may not be an option, but audio architects are thinking up new tricks for brick-and-mortar stores. Mood Media is experimenting with an inaudible “digital tag,” attached to in-store soundtracks, which activates an app on shoppers’ phones. The app can tempt them with discounts or provide more information about products. With luck, this will trigger more sales than a blast of Beethoven.