In the past several years, scientific research has shown that music has a powerful effect on our psychology, altering human moods and producing corresponding changes in human behavior. Enterprising retailers have taken these findings to their logical next step: using music to increase retail sales. “Marketers use [music] as a motivator in the purchase decision of consumers shopping in different environments due to easy way of manipulation of the music and the fact that music isn’t offensive to the consumer,” noted the Independent Journal of Management and Production. That article surveyed a number of studies, all of which pointed to the same conclusion: Choosing the right music can boost sales. Here’s how.
Science for Sales: A Behavioral Psychology Theory of Background Music
Research into the effects of background music on shopping behavior has a long history. In 1982, Ronald E. Millman published an article in the Journal of Marketing that examined customers’ purchases based on the tempo of ambient music. Millman found that when background music was faster, customers bought less — they walked more quickly, picked up only what they came for, and spent little to no time browsing. When the tempo slowed down, however, customers’ movements did, too. They browsed more and spent more. How well customers know the music affects their shopping time, too, as well as their own perceptions of their shopping time.
In a 2000 article published in the Journal of Business Research, researchers found that shoppers moved more quickly through the store when familiar music, like current top hits, played. However, these shoppers thought they moved more slowly. In turn, shoppers who heard unfamiliar music moved more slowly, but thought they were moving more quickly.
Mode matters, too. A 2011 study found that shoppers in grocery stores bought more when the music was slower, and they bought even more when the music was in a minor key. Researchers hypothesized that the minor key, which shoppers tend to associate with sadness, spurred buying behavior because purchasing new things can cause the brain to release dopamine — an instant boost of happiness.
What the Research Has Found
Music can be used in highly specific ways to affect both what shoppers buy and how much they’re willing to pay.
In a 2016 article published in the Journal of Retailing, researchers Adrian C. North, Lorraine P. Sheridan and Charles S. Areni hypothesized that musical choices could be tailored to produce highly specific buying behaviors by recalling specific memories in the brains of buyers.
The three researchers tested this hypothesis by assigning 120 college students to one of four rooms in a lab. Three of the four rooms played music by a particular artist on a continuous loop, while the fourth room was silent to serve as a control. Depending on their placement, groups heard songs by American band The Beach Boys, Chinese group The Peking Brothers or Indian artist Sunidhi Chauhan. After several minutes in each room, the students were given menus that included American, Chinese and Indian food options. They were asked to list as many items as they could recall after studying the menu, then asked to order one of the food options.
The results? Students who had heard one of the three types of music were more likely to remember and to order the corresponding food items, while students who heard no music did not trend toward any type of food in particular.
The researchers also conducted a similar experiment, in which 180 students viewed slides of “utilitarian” and “social identity” products while listening either to classical music, country music or no music. They were then asked how much they’d be willing to pay for each product.
Students who heard classical music were willing to pay more for social identity items, while students who heard country were willing to pay more for utilitarian ones — indicating that congruity between a product’s image and its ambient music encourages more spending, while incongruity may discourage spending.
Similarly, a 1993 study in Advances in Consumer Research found retail sales in a wine store were higher when classical music played and lower when Top 40 hits played.
How to Put the Research to Use In Your Retail Space
Not all stores have used music to influence customer behavior. Retail giant Target made headlines in 2017 when it announced plans to start playing music in its stores nationwide. “It’s all about activating all the senses while guests are in the store,” Target communications lead Kristy Welker said. “Guests enjoy it as part of the shopping experience. When we first started testing it and asking guests what they think, some of them even wondered if we had it there before.”
Whether you plan to introduce music to a retail space or simply want to optimize the music you already offer, here’s what to consider.
Tailor the Music to Your Brand — and to How You Want Customers to Behave
If your brand projects a high-end, leisurely image, the best music will integrate with that persona. It’ll likely be more classical, quieter and low-tempo. If your business depends on high customer turnover and a come-as-you-are vibe, faster-paced, more popular tunes are likely to carry the day.
Music has an effect on customers’ moods during wait times, as well. For instance, hold music tends to keep customers on the line longer, while customers standing in a queue tend to perceive that less time has passed if they’re hearing music that is familiar to them or that they like. When sourcing music for your brand, don’t be afraid to ask music professionals for suggestions. Search out musical choices from brands that have the same feel you seek to create in the retail space — not only by visiting other stores, but also by viewing ad campaigns or attending events.
Pay attention to the musical feel of these efforts and how they combine with images, movement and other sensory details to build an experience. Then, pick the music that enhances the experience you seek in your own retail space.
Mind the Volume
The effects of music choice on retail shopping behavior don’t seem to be affected by whether customers notice the music. In fact, music that’s quiet enough to go unnoticed often has the best effect.
In a 1966 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that loud music caused shoppers to exit the store more quickly than soft music, which was correlated with lower sales. In addition, shoppers exposed to loud music thought more time had passed in the store than shoppers exposed to softer music.
In study after study with soft music, however, shoppers reported surprise that the music had influenced their buying habits — they hadn’t even noticed what music was playing. The results suggest that music doesn’t have to be loud to influence shoppers. In fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t.
“The best retail store music is actually music you don’t really remember,” says Jasmine Moradi, music researcher at Soundtrack Your Brand. “The best music creates an atmosphere that enchants you, but it remains below the level of consciousness.”
Create an Experience
Finally, don’t be afraid to combine music with other sensory effects for a full experience. A 2005 study in the Journal of Business Research found that a combination of holiday-themed music and scents boosted sales in a Christmas shop more than the music alone — and much more than the scent alone, which actually decreased sales.
As Philip Kotler noted in a 1973 article for the Journal of Retailing, “In some cases, the place, the atmosphere of the place, is more influential than the product itself in the purchase decision. In some cases, the atmosphere is the primary product.”
And when the right music fills the space, it creates an atmosphere that encourages sales.