Loud music in a store can give many consumers an intense nightclub-like sensation. But for many others it defeats its purpose. (Photo: Thomas Brun/NTB/Scanpix)

Loud music confuses shoppers

Some merchants blast their customers with music in an attempt to increase sales. Swedish research, however, shows that many consumers experience the music as much too intense.

Have you had your plans to shop for your teenager’s clothes torpedoed by deafening techno music at a store entrance? You are not alone in doing an about-face at the door when being slammed by a wall of sound.

A Swedish dissertation in philosophy shows it far from certain that blaring beats have the desired effect on customers.

The music that is supposed to attract a target group of consumers can make shopping sheer torture for others.

Sounds and scents can impact customers

Many marketers think that background music boosts sales, as do delicate and delightful scents. The idea is to get prospective buyers in a good mood that helps them part with more money.

“In-store music is not a new phenomenon per se, but during the last decade it has gone through what can be described as a spatial transformation; what once was often referred to as barely audible Muzak or background music is now, in general, in the absolute foreground,” says Olle Stenbäck at the University of Gothenburg on the university’s website.

Nightclub-esque sensation

He conducted in-depth interviews with 12 customers aged 27 to 71 in one of Gothenburg’s central downtown shopping districts. He also received about 120 replies to questionnaires.

He found out that when music is used correctly it can indeed create the intended nightclub-esque sensations among customers.

But many of the consumers he interviewed were very sceptical to the way stores use tunes.

Cascades of techno music among the shelves of merchandise can drown out thought and stymie customers’ decision-making abilities.

They simply cannot decide what to buy or whether to buy it.

Contextual differences

A key theme in the dissertation was to look at marketers’ claims that types of music communicate in specific ways with the customers.

The researcher found a gap between the effect that marketers claim to achieve and what consumers really experience.

“Far from all consumers have the relationship to the in-store music that the marketers claim, including that certain types of music have a specific effect on everyone, no matter whether the music is played through store loudspeakers or in a person’s own ear-buds,” points out Stenbäck.

He thinks our relationship to music is far from being as simple as marketers assert.

Love-hate relationship

Many consumers are also ambivalent about the music.

They are aware of the retailers’ intentions with the music but are uncertain about their own capabilities of evaluating how the music impacts them by being played in the store.

“Some think the in-store music affects them in an incomprehensible way,” says Stenbäck.

Many consumers are also sceptical of the city-core’s or shopping mall’s total audio landscape.

Way too intense

“Several of those I interviewed felt audio-ally exhausted even before they entered the store. They experience the combined outputs of sound as far too intense,” says Stenbäck.

Many merchants ignore all the other neighbouring businesses that are also pumping sound into the shopping area.

Consumers have various methods of protecting themselves against the audio onslaughts. Some try to ignore them, others are resigned or try to drown them out.

“Many protect themselves against the sound by fleeing to their own portable music players,” he says.

But with their own sounds filling their heads they can feel isolated.

“They don’t really want to screen themselves off but they feel they have no other option,” explains Stenbäck.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

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