On the Impact of Music on Shopping.

I spent about 20 minutes in my favourite grocery store today hunting around for cloves of garlic to stuff in my ears so I didn’t have to continue to listen to the cheesiest and dullest soft-rock tunes of the 90s as I filled up my shopping cart. I was probably the only person in the store in my 20s and all the other shoppers (30s upwards) seemed to enjoy the music and were all in a calm and happy disposition. My dish called for garlic anyway, so I removed the cloves from my ears and started to wonder about my observations on music and shopping. What’s the impact of music on our consumer behaviour?

Now this is the cool subliminal stuff that so many consumers come to resent or fear, but after a bit of research it’s clear that music does indeed have an impact on our shopping habits.

One of the first reasons why it might have more of a subconscious impact is that we are very accustomed to hearing ambient music when shopping. It’s not something new or that we often actively take notice. On the other hand, retailers definitely take an interest in music and it’s impact on the bottom line.

An interesting study by North, Hargreaves and McKendrick (1999) found that music played a role in consumer’s selection of wine. They found that when they played French-sounding music, shoppers were more likely to choose a French wine. Conversely, on days when they played Germanic-sounding music, customers more prominently chose the German wine.

There are actually a number of factors related to music that have an impact on our shopping habits.

Top 40 vs. Unknown. A study by Yalch and Spangenberg (2000) found that participant-shoppers who heard chart-toppers spent 8% less time shopping (in an experimental condition where they had no shopping time-limit). Interestingly, people who heard unfamiliar music felt time pass quicker, as the unfamiliar shoppers were spending more cognitive energy listening to new songs takes up.

Tempo. An experiment by Milliman (1982) found that the tempo of music played in a supermarket impacted how long a customer took to do his or her shopping and ultimately end-of-day profits. Faster-paced music lead to customers walking more quickly through the store and ultimately purchasing fewer impulse purchases as they didn’t have time to consider all the options. Slowing the music down also slowed the customers down, leading to more purchases by each consumer and ultimately a fatter bottom line (and perhaps a fatter bottom overall?).

Genre. Music genre can impact behaviour. The impact goes beyond the consumer context. Currently the TTC is playing classical music in a number of its subway stations. The thinking here is to play music youth will not enjoy and that will keep them moving along. Listening to music that one does not enjoy decreases dopamine production, putting a damper on mood and encouraging onward movement. In the consumer context, it isn’t about moving people along but getting them to spend more money. Classical music is associated with luxury and affluence, which in turn would make customers feel more affluent and willing to spend more money.

A study by Areni and Kim (1993) tested the impact of music genre on wine purchases. They found that playing classical music made their customers more willing to purchase higher quality wine and ultimately spend more in-store. They established that ambiance in a store can indeed change the way a customer feels and how much money they will be willing to spend. Jacob et al (2009) confirms these findings with a similar experiment of playing sappy romantic music in a flower shop and seeing spending increase.

Although there are many dimensions to the impact of music on shopping that have not been explored, these studies suggest it is an interesting avenue for future research in consumer psychology. And, of course, shoppers beware! If you are prone to being influenced by ambient music then go to the store with a list of items selected ahead of time. Or cloves of garlic – they make great ear plugs.

If you are interested in the impact of music on other behaviours, North and Hargreaves’s book covers many interesting topics, a summary of which can be found here.

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