How in-store music can help shops hit the right notes

Retailers are tailoring their soundtracks to the newfound anxiety, and revived excitement, around shopping.
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· 6 min read

If you were to step into an Urban Outfitters blindfolded (we do not recommend this) and play guess-that-retailer, the sounds of Pitchfork-rated indie hits would probably tip you off. For a blindfolded trip to Rite-Aid (again, not recommended), you might instead recognize the familiar calm of smooth adult contemporary and quiet pop from artists like Seal and Tears for Fears.

It sounds simple, but the soundtrack for trying on crop tops is very different from the song a customer wants to hear while comparing deodorants.

  • A 2019 survey of 10,000 consumers showed nearly half of respondents spent longer in a store because they liked what was playing on the speakers, while 57% said they’d be more likely to ditch their shopping cart if a store made questionable music choices.

And in today’s Covid-era world, hitting the right note means keeping your shopper in a good mood.

“Pre-pandemic, retailers would, for the most part, be interested in having a variety of styles…and a range of energy levels,” explained Richard Jankovich, founder of the in-store music company Shoplifter that works with companies like Chanel, Nike, and Taco Bell. But now, “there’s no tolerance for music that deviates from bright, upbeat fun.”

One-two step back: For retailers thinking about changing their tune, Jankovich told Retail Brew, the equation to first consider is “your brand plus your target customer,” and then finding pieces of music that reflect that. Boot Barn might play country, Starbucks may opt for “easy breezy acoustic pop songs,” as Jankovich put it, and fast-fashion spots like H&M “want you to feel like you're at a nightclub.” If your music isn’t linking to your brand’s core attributes, that’s a playlist, not a strategy.

Stephanie Perdue, VP of brand marketing at Chipotle, for example, describes the restaurant’s soundtrack as “genreless, optimistic,” with “real instrumentation, and real artistry,” but also “fun and relevant.” That explains why you might hear everything from Johnny Cash to Tame Impala to avant jazz over your burrito bowl.

But beyond the ~vibes~, music also facilitates flow and pace. “We think about time of day, when there’s a lull in the day, what kind of music really supports that experience, to when it’s frenetic and busy during rush hour,” Perdue told us.

Change my mind: Setting and goals are top priorities for Startle Music, which works with clients from the Ritz-Carlton to Domino’s. If a restaurant wants to turn tables quicker, Startle’s strategic brand director James Odene told us, they need fast-paced music. In a similar vein, stimulating music (think: bumping bass and BPM) pairs well with “higher-fat food” and induces an indulgent mood.

  • One study shows softer music making diners more “mindful” of what they order, while louder tunes are more likely to inspire consumers to opt for another round of fries.
  • Odene noted that by increasing music volume and dimming the lighting, one of Startle’s hotel chain clients was able to achieve a 10% uplift in sales.

Odene explained there are two kinds of decision-making systems that guide consumers in a store. System one is automatic and based on habit, calling for an up-tempo soundtrack. “You don’t get interrupted by anything…[you] wouldn’t necessarily consider products that you’d never bought before,” he said. This kind of soundtrack might complement a fast-fashion retailer or a coffee chain.

Meanwhile, a grocery store or expensive boutique, where someone pores over nutrition labels or debates splurging on a purse, wants customers in system two—a process of “slow, deliberate, intentional consideration,” Odene explained.

  • The biggest challenge, he asserted, is attempting to knock people from system one to system two, “interrupting their natural behavior in a way to reset them into a new mind frame.”

Beyond buyers: The songs played in a store impact the people selling products as much as the customers buying them, noted Jankovich. “The people most affected by store music are the employees,” he said. “You have to have a big enough playlist that they aren’t driven crazy.”

  • That’s a minimum of 750 songs that you refresh monthly (50 in, 50 out) to keep it new.

Another thing retailers might not consider is how music could help curtail crime. Vibenomics, an audio company, told us that a major grocer began requesting anti-loitering playlists and music for crime-rate reduction in 2018. (The chain asked to remain unnamed.) Vibenomics’s music director Libby Farr told us that classical music is often the genre of choice. “People don’t want to stand outside the store and listen to Bach,” she said.

  • Farr said the company even has an “active shooter protocol” for one of its major grocery chain clients, which involves cutting the music or switching to white noise. After an active shooter incident, Vibenomics goes through the retailer’s playlists and deletes songs that were playing before, during, or after the shooting, so as not to re-traumatize employees.
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What’s next: As clients and consumers have been more focused on Covid hygiene, Startle has been thinking about how it can placate lingering concerns. The company recently began experimenting with atmospheric rainforest sounds and blue lighting in bathrooms. One of its chain clients tracked customer responses and noticed higher numbers of people self-reporting calm feelings and comfort with the bathroom’s cleanliness, even though the cleanliness hadn’t changed.

Odene predicts retailers will start thinking about sound beyond music, “across all touchpoints”: the beep of a button in a store, echoes through the aisles, the sound of the brand’s app booting up. “You have to work harder to soothe people” in the pandemic age, he said.

“What brands need to look at is how music not only affects sales—it will and does—but also how it long-term creates a better picture for them,” said Chris Golub, president of Studio Orca, who has curated Chipotle’s eclectic soundtrack for the last 12 years. “If you’re creating a better environment, people are going to want to come back. They’re going to have a great feeling about your retail location.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.