Natural Foods Merchandiser

In-store music makes people linger longer

Think running loops of Neil Young crooning about "four dead in O-hi-o" is the best way to pump up shoppers with music? Think again.

What people hear while browsing your store is as important as how sharp the signage looks and how well the floors have been waxed, according to experts.

"Music is an ambient element, like lighting and décor … so it's really part of the merchandising of the store, and its purpose is to make customers stay longer," says Jay Jacobowitz, president and founder of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based consulting service for natural products retailers.

So it's not simply enough to plug in an iPod and blast music through speakers you picked up at a garage sale. One option is to pay for your own high-tech, tirelessly working virtual DJ. Several companies offer in-store music services such as pre-programmed, custom-made channels delivered via satellite.

David Brewster, senior vice president of marketing and creative services for PlayNetwork, a Redmond, Wash.-based company that provides in-store music and video services, explains that businesses such as his work much like an ad agency. The idea is to match the tunes with the retailer's brand message. Some big chains like Starbucks go so far as to use music to entice customers to buy CDs for sale in its stores, he notes. Whole Foods Markets, which works with a PlayNetwork competitor, does the same thing. "That's a little unusual for a grocery client, but it's something we do as well," Brewster says.

But generally, the idea isn't about selling specific goods. Jon Luther, director of audio architecture for Fort Mill, S.C.-based Muzak, sings this riff when explaining the value of professionally crafted music programs: "[Audio architects] create experiences with music for retail brands, and that can extend into zoos, shopping malls … and any other place where the music can enhance the experience."

Muzak draws from a database of some 2 million songs, from the pop rock of John Mayer to the party rap of the Beastie Boys. But what should you play? The experts recommend MOR—middle of the road.

"It means something pretty safe, appeals to everyone from 8 to 80, no rough edges on the program," Luther says. "You're not going to have a lot of real aggressive tempos or aggressive instrumentations.

"Typically, I think the organic customer is a little more adventurous from a palate standpoint and from a lifestyle standpoint," he adds. "You really analyze that lifestyle, that customer and try to match the music program accordingly."

Cost? That depends on what level of service you want, but a monthly fee for something basic might run about $50, outside of equipment costs. And while your budget might not be able to cover a stereo system that can rock a concert hall, it's not a good idea to go with nickel-and-dime speakers, Luther says.

"I think it's really important, especially for someone who is trying to make an impact, to spend a little bit of time on sound design and the types of experiences you want to create with the speakers and amplifier," he says. "We can work all day long on a beautiful music program, but if it's coming out of a $5 speaker, it's going to fall flat a little bit." Jacobowitz says regardless of how you decide to pipe music into the store, don't let the employees control the dial.

"Music is there for the enjoyment of the customer … to relax, to enjoy, to be in a good mood, all of which equates to lingering longer. The corollary is: Music is not for the employees," he says. "The latest hits from the mosh pit might be what turns on Generation Y, but it probably doesn't align very well with the sensibilities of the 35-year-old to 54-year-old woman shopping the store."

For those who might eschew paying someone else when you have your own CD library or an MP3 player with 10,000 greatest hits, keep one thing in mind: Unless you're paying royalties for those tunes, it's technically illegal to use privately purchased music for public use. Public performance agencies such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC exist to protect the rights of songwriters and performers, Brewster notes. "They have an army of people out there to make sure the music is licensed appropriately in all establishments." Companies like PlayNetwork and Muzak take the hassle—and harassment—out of the equation.

"It's a simple solution for someone who is unsure about how to use music in their retail or restaurant space," Brewster says.

Peter Rejcek is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 24

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