I'm Too Sexy For This Store

The lighting is perfect, the stage is set, and the soundtrack plays in the background.  You need not be on a movie set to be part of this scene -- every time you set foot in a store, you’re offered a theatrical experience in which you play the protagonist.  As the New Yorker article, “The Soundtrack of Your Life,” put it, retail theater is about selling emotion.  And the number one way that emotion is sold -- and purchased by you -- is via music.

Retail stores hire “audio architects” to design a soundscape that reinforces the brand’s values and sets a climate and tone ripe for purchasing.  The particular playlist you hear is selected in an attempt to complement the given environment and brand, appeal to the brand’s target demographic, and alter their mood in a way that encourages them to purchase whatever the brand is selling.  It’s not about appealing to personal taste -- it’s about creating an immersive experience.

Which in-store music elements affect your mind, body, and purchasing habits? Here are 5 tricks you should be aware of next time you walk into a store (and before you make your next purchase):

1.  Tempo: Studies have shown that we have a physiological response to music tempos.  Our heart rates increase with the beat, and slows when the tempo decreases.  An upbeat tempo in a major key has been shown to positively alter a shopper’s mood -- and encourage spending.  Slower tempos, however, can also benefit certain types of retail environments, like bookstores, where the music is slow and mellow, encouraging shoppers to spend more time browsing and reading, and ultimately purchase more.

2.  Volume:   Loud music decreases the average time a consumer spends in a store, however,  research indicates that per minute sales go up when the music is cranked, as in stores like Armani Exchange and Topshop.  Like discount shopping, intense, pulsating music is another way that consumers may make emotionally-charged impulse purchases, only to experience buyers’ remorse once they’re home.  Armani Exchange and Topshop have also taken the in-store concert experience one step further by enlisting a regular line-up of DJs to play in their stores -- making the setting more of a concert, where the purchases made double as a sort of souvenir from the “show.”

3. Classical:  Classical music has been proven to trigger increased spending, especially in customer service-driven stores, like Victoria’s Secret. In addition to the ways in which it affects the consumers physically, it also communicates a subliminal message of affluence -- leading the shopper to believe the products are more upscale, and preparing them to spend more money.  Department stores like Nordstrom and Von Maur have even gone so far as to hire a classical pianist to play in stores, transforming the retail space into an environment of civilized refinement and expensive taste.

4. Zoning: The concept of 'zoning' music (usually in department stores or other large retail spaces, like Toys “R” Us) involves playing different music in different areas of the store, relative to the area-specific product offerings.  This strategic variation in the shopping soundtrack entertains and surprises you while you shop, keeping you uniquely engaged in each aisle.

5. Soundtracks for sale: In addition to playing carefully curated playlists in-store, one of the latest trends in retail theater and branding offers a “take it home” tactic: many stores sell CDs of their store soundtracks.  Nike and Victoria’s Secret sell their branded CDs, and Starbucks has gone so far as to create an entire Starbucks-themed music subculture, and launch their own record label, Hear Music.  These songs create a full-sensory brand experience while the consumer is in-store, but once the CD is purchased, the brand permeates the consumer’s domestic space and personal listening devices, like iPods.  And, given the emotional connection we feel with music, this is an ideally intimate brand/consumer experience.

Want to bring the retail theater experience into your home? Check out these tips and try the DIY sociological experiment:

  • HABU is an app that organizes your music library into moods, so you can be the audio architect of your own life.
  • Like what you heard in a store, but didn’t buy the CD? Check out these store music blogs:
    • Urban Outfitters features their recent playlists and makes them free to listen and download
    • Forever 21 does a 'spotlight' feature on their favorite artists
    • Hollister allows you to play their featured tracks through its integrated media player

DIY Sociological Experiment:  Enter a retail store (perhaps one listed above) and browse for a few minutes.  Then put on headphones and tune into music that is the opposite of what’s playing in the store.  Do you feel a difference?