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Soundings: shopping – the new theatre…enlivening the retail environment

Is shopping the new theatre? – Michael Spencer on why good retail can make good theatre. Roll up! Roll up! – How music can enliven the retail environment, by Steve Oakes. Andrew Peggie laments the fact that lack of audio makes hotel websites seem other-worldly. Sound Strategies News – Campaign Digital Viewpoint feature – Agencies, stop shouting on the Web! … Anneli Beronius Haake and her research makes the Guardian …

Is shopping the new theatre?

There is a self-evident logic to the desire of companies to control all aspects of their retail environments. A certain level of predictability is without doubt essential to commercial confidence. Yet, from the point of view of the consumer, an important part of the shopping experience is surely coming across nice surprises. The shopper’s ideal environment is probably a fine balance between familiar surroundings and new or unexpected sensory experiences, certainly as Mary Portas would have us believe in her current BBC TV series, Mary Queen of Shops. Portas’ accompanying book, How to Shop, cleverly signals information to the retail clothing industry whilst ostensibly purporting to be an insider’s guide for the customers themselves. The subtext of Portas’ approach is that shopping is an event, not just a transaction, with close similarities to every form of entertainment ever invented, from the beginning of time, indeed.

Current research into the operation of retail or service environments tends to approach the issue from a functional, rather mechanistic viewpoint, with customers apparently exhibiting almost Pavlovian levels of behaviour predicated on carefully controlled background variables, such as musical style, tempo or volume level. Steve Oakes’ brief survey (below) of music’s impact in retail spaces demonstrates the usefulness of this approach when it comes to describing what happens and why.

But beyond the basic principles, such as ensuring a certain level of congruity across all aspects of the environment, it would be a mistake to treat research results as an immutable formula for retail space management without also ensuring that the essential elements of entertainment and surprise are deployed. Optimisation of the space is not in itself going to maximise sales, just as a fully-equipped theatre and a clutch of star actors will not draw an audience if the play hasn’t been rehearsed.

As always with any kind of presentation, the interest lies not in the endlessly refined and perfected core content, but in the subtle shifts and nuances of delivery made uniquely in response to a specific audience at a specific time.

Background music, along with the face-to-face interventions of the sales team, are the only elements of a retail space capable of contributing this level of interactive variety to the experience. (Displays can change of course, but less frequently and rarely in direct response to customer reaction.)

Music playlists which are undifferentiated and formulaic, no matter how finely tuned to the intended consumer demographic, are always going to be at a disadvantage compared to the situation where the musical ambience can react and respond to changing circumstances throughout the day.

Good sales staff have always been aware of the theatrical aspects of their work, of course, but how many retail space designers approach a project with the aim of creating an entertainment rather than a selling environment? There are challenges which do not exist in conventional theatre, such as the fact that the customer/audience has to be addressed individually as well as en masse; and people do not remain in one place but come and go unpredictably. But treating the retail environment as a quasi theatre might lead to more creative solutions to the customer encouragement/retention issue.

One important aspect of theatre which is often overlooked in retail is the sense of time passing. A good theatre show has clear profile, with build-up, climax, release, drama, comedy, tension, etc. Are there similar moments when buying a pair of shoes? Why not? Can some of them be engineered by means of music, lighting, staff-customer interaction, etc. Certainly.

The overall ‘tempo’ of a public space can influence the behaviour of the users of the space accordingly. Background music is an important – though not the only – element in this.

Michael Spencer Managing Director


Roll up! Roll up! How music can enliven the retail environment

The influence of the ‘Musicscape’ is acknowledged by managers as a critical element for consumers who are seeking an increasingly multi-sensory experience from their retail encounters.

For music to have maximum effect, however, it needs to complement the other elements of store design. The holistic inter-relationships between the visual, aural, human and indeed olfactory aspects of a retail space exert complex and subtle influences on each other and background music should not be treated in isolation. Responses to an environment depend upon the integration of multi-sensory information gleaned from the design/shape of the space, scents (ambient and specific), decor, lighting, furnishings, as well as interactions between these variables. Research suggests that environmental design will be most effective if all the elements are conveying a consistent message. For example, they might combine to suggest a high quality  experience, or a space attractive to a young age group. This is known as congruity.

The importance of musical congruity is identified in most of the findings from academic studies examining the impact of music in retail environments. Music can be regarded as congruous if:

– it is relevant to the overall context (see above) – it is what visitors to the space might expect to hear.

Cultural congruity between background music from a specific country and the origin of the retail products is a good example. French wine significantly outsold German wine in a store when stereotypical French accordion music was being played, while (in the same store) German wine significantly outsold French wine with Bierkeller music in the background. Possible explanations are less clear, however. The increased sales may have arisen because the music evoked pleasant holiday memories, or simply because it created the impression of a sales promotion.

If marketers wish to create an upmarket atmosphere and sell premium priced products, the music should reflect such upmarket aspirations. Research from 1993 revealed how customers purchased more expensive wines in a retail environment playing background classical rather than pop music because classical music provided a more congruously sophisticated cue, suggesting to customers that only the more expensive brands should be purchased. Congruity between music and other elements of the retail environment is likely to provide similar benefits, according to a 1994 research study which revealed how the matching of classical music with soft lighting (compared to pop music and bright lighting) produced customer expectations of higher service and merchandise quality levels.

We know that shoppers frequently rely upon the vintage of background music to help them navigate their way around a large department store. Youthful consumers instinctively avoid zones playing chart hits from the 1960s, for example. More dramatically, if just one floor of a department store is music-free, research suggests that the unexpected absence of music can create feelings of insecurity, isolation, and threat, often resulting in a visitor’s rapid departure to another area.

Although congruity is important, it is not the only influential musical element. Musical tempo can have significant effects, even if the result appears incongruous. Slow-tempo music relaxes people in queues and reduces their stress levels. It can also slow down the speed at which they push their trolleys around the supermarket, thus leading to increased browsing and impulse purchases. In a full service restaurant, slow tempo music will encourage people to take longer over their meals and spend more money on high margin beverages. In fast-food restaurants, on the other hand, fast-tempo music may encourage more rapid eating, thus leading to quicker table turnover.

Musical volume can also play a part. Research suggests that younger shoppers (aged under 50) spend more in retail environments that play loud music, while shoppers aged 50 and over spend more with quiet background music.

While many of these effects might be rather self-evident, the specific circumstances of individual spaces can often make absolute predictions difficult. Ideally, retail organisation managers would test various background music effects against customer behaviour patterns, to establish an optimum repertoire. More elaborate and specialised marketing research can measure the ways music interacts with other environmental stimuli and thus help create optimum marketing conditions at different points throughout a retail complex.

Steve Oakes Dr Steve Oakes is a Lecturer in Marketing who teaches postgraduate level quantitative research methods at the University of Liverpool Management School. He has published in Psychology Marketing, Journal of Advertising Research, Applied Cognitive Psychology, International Journal of Service Industry Management, Service Industries Journal, Journal of Marketing Management, and the Journal of Services Marketing. His research focuses upon the influence of music in the context of advertising and service environments.


Lack of audio makes hotel websites seem other-worldly

The overall impression of luxury hotels, gleaned from their website presence, is that they are havens of Buddhist levels of silent calm-ness. An impression probably many of them would be happy to endorse, although the reality is likely to be somewhat different.

People become hypersensitive to the sound-world of a hotel because unfamiliar surroundings prompt our aural perception faculty to work overtime. Even quiet or insignificant sounds which would be hardly noticeable at home can drive the guest to distraction in a hotel bedroom.

But should a marketing website reflect this? Clearly a warts and all image would not be appropriate, but there is much to be said for evoking the aural environment of a location in advertising content, and it is certainly technically possible nowadays. The ambient sounds found in hotels are not all intolerable. And very often they contain the special ingredients of warmth, comfort and familiarity which feature so often in branding key word text.

Many websites exploit clever interactive functionality, with user-controlled panning and tracking, which enables the visitor to experience a virtual tour of the hotel’s main features. Of course the foyers, concourses, restaurants, bars and terraces are invariably both empty and silent.

Why not add background audio? Imagine a terrace overlooking the sea, with evocative sea sounds enhancing the image. Or a foyer alive with movement and conversation, and perhaps a music group in the background. Or a cabaret artiste in the cocktail bar. Or party time at the pool side.

The sound-world (and scent-world) of a spa, for instance, is invariably more evocative than the décor, especially to a guest with heightened aural sensitivity. Yet no-one seems to have thought of exploiting that in online advertising.

The USA Peninsula Hotels chain merely hints at possibilities with a series of ‘Concierge Choice’ e-magazines which cleverly mimic the page turning motion of a paper version, complete with page turning noises. But that’s all. The magazines are replete with hi-resolution, expertly photographed images, many of which could be sensitively enhanced with matching sound effects. If sound is used for something as insignificant as page turning impressions, then why not for the marketing elements that really matter?

The Raffles chain takes a similar approach, but has been ambitious enough to add some music backing to its e-book animated tours. Each of the eight locations features a track seemingly intended to reflect the music of the region – or possibly what might be heard in the hotel foyer. The concept is admirable though not always successful in execution, presumably because it may have been difficult to locate well-played authentic music which also reflected the high brand value of the hotel in places like Angkor and Phnom Penh. The tacky track from Beverley Hills has no such excuses, however.

What is clear is that, although many proprietors have good musical intentions, neither hotel, nor brand executives nor creatives possess anything like enough musical expertise and understanding to achieve presentational standards equivalent to the visual elements of their websites.

Yet, it is possible. Standing out – possibly alone – amongst the hotels which have thought seriously about both the quality of their musical image and its strategic use across website, marketing and the hotel itself is Sublime Ailleurs of Marrakech. The site opens with an offer of three, superbly produced original music tracks, with which to accompany the website visit. The music is both contemporary and entirely evocative of North Africa, displaying a quality of invention and recording which easily matches the five-star status of the hotel. It completely complements the brand image. They get other elements right as well. The volume level is finely judged; there is a pop-up window with full musical details and credits. And the tracks are long enough and carefully edited so that it is almost impossible to detect the loop repeating.

If a relatively obscure individual hotel can get its audio marketing elements right, why not some of the world’s biggest players?

In fact about fifty percent of the sites visited used audio of some sort, though in the more familiar formats of video presentations and music backing tracks for flash animations. Prince Resorts operates a small number of luxury hotels and resorts in Hawaii. The group website features each hotel in similar fashion, using photographs, virtual tours and short promotional videos. The visual elements – as always – are of a consistently high quality and carefully constructed to promote a precise ambience and image reflecting the brand values. Then click on the ‘Take a video tour’ link and the heart sinks at the bland, lifeless commentary and a music loop which appears to have been recorded on cassette with a 1970s drum machine backing. Five-star visual impressions with a one-star sound track. One of the reasons for checking out Prince Resorts was because some years ago it issued its own Hawaiian music CD which merited a brief feature in There is no mention of this on the current sites.

Other hotel chains have also woken up to the branding power of music and created bespoke playlists which guests can buy in CD format or download onto i-pods. The UK chain, Malmaison, sells music CDs as part of its brand offer, but there is no way of sampling the tracks on its website. It does however, somewhat bizarrely, feature the music of one of its staff members and aspiring rap artist. Great exposure for the individual, but hard to make any kind of brand fit between the heavily urban hip hop sounds and the brand image.

Westin Hotels and Resorts features a tasteful but quirky jazz-funk-world music track on its ‘Westin Difference’ page, which continues on clicking each of the virtual brochure pages, but stops abruptly when the link to each topic is opened. There is no obvious route back to the ‘brochure’ page – or the music. Thus a tiny functionality issue obliterates the entire feel-good atmosphere created by an excellent music track. Westin’s Senior Vice President, Sue Brush, has written: ‘There is no sensory element more engaging on an emotional level than music. Through our signature music programming we will create a renewing, relaxing and welcoming atmosphere and a truly memorable experience for our guests’. True – so long as you stop surfing and listen.

Most hotel websites are of course an obvious extension of their print brochures, and very likely designed by the same graphic artists and photographers. Consistency of layout, font, colour and image are all strongly congruous with the brand. The website silence nevertheless evokes a strangely clinical effect, but often that is preferable to the distinctly down-market atmosphere which clouds the sites when music or a voice-over begins.

Andrew Peggie


Sound Strategies News

Sound Strategies features in the latest edition of Campaign contributing to its Digital Viewpoint series with an article about the latest trends in the use of sound on the Web by agencies We are connected with Anneli Beronius Haake through her research at Sheffield University into the use of music in the workplace. Her work was featured in the Guardian this month; Desk Jockeys.

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