Ever wondered what you should do to achieve your goal as a retailer, a.k.a. to make your customers spend as much as possible in your store, no matter what type of store we’re talking about? Well, first of all, you better be aware of this: you must create an ATMOSPHERE! Every little detail of the customer’s experience matters – and we’re talking here about colors that pop in their eyes, different smells they encounter, the sellers’ attitude, but one of the most important elements is MUSIC, the ambient music that your shoppers hear in your store.

All these stimuli are hypothesized to influence the psychological atmosphere in a store, and a store’s atmosphere influences the behaviors of its customers. Your customers will link the smell they encounter with their experience in your store, and this will determine how long are they going to stay there. In other words, the atmosphere is a combination of the stimuli, which should ensure the greatest shopping experience for the customers.

This might lead to some purse strings loosen…which is your biggest goal, of course. As I said before, out of these stimuli,  music is one that might be the most effective. In the following lines, I am going to present you ways in which the ambient music influences the shoppers.

As Ronald E. Milliman states in his article, “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers”, published in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 1982), music can not only be used for entertainment, it is a stimulus which can also be used in order to achieve other objectives.

As he says, retailers are employing it in stores to produce certain desired attitudes and behaviors among customers, as it stimulates customer purchasing. We find out from the article that, despite the use of music on a large scale in the marketplace, we only have a limited research documenting the effects of music, and the results of the existing one are uncertain regarding its effects on consumer behavior.

And this is, of course, unfortunate, because music is an atmospheric variable which is easily controlled by management. As a consequence, past decisions to use background music in the marketplace were generally based more on intuition or folklore rather than on strong empirical results.

Programmed background music and the in-store shopping behavior

There are plenty of studies regarding this subject, though. One of them was presented in Milliman’s article and it examines the possible connection between the use of programmed background music and behavior, the in-store shopping behavior, more specifically.

To investigate the effects of three variations of treatment, on the in-store shopping behavior of supermarket customers, a type of latin square experimental design with controls was what researchers used. The mentioned treatments were a no music treatment (1), a slow tempo music treatment (2) and, the last one, a fast tempo music treatment (3).

A marketer of programmed background music systems, who is well-known nationally, made a claim in the sales literature that variations of the music tempo would change human behavior. That’s why these were chosen as experimental treatments. When contacted though, the firm refused to produce research data in support of its claim.

The reason of this is the fact that much of the existing literature is more directly concerned with the effects of music on attitudes rather than behavior. After attitude measurements were taken, generalizations were made about behavior. So, to find out whether, in fact, a link existed between music tempo and human behavior, tempo was selected as the independent variable for this research.

The following three hypotheses were stated in positive form, for reader convenience. The experimental treatments of – first of all, no music, than slow tempo music and, the last one, fast tempo music were about to significantly affect: (1) the pace of in-store traffic flow of supermarket shoppers, (2) the daily heavy sales volume purchased by supermarket customers, and finally, (3) the number of supermarket shoppers who expressed a recognition of the background music after they have left the store.

To understand the results of the study, we must know first its circumstances: it was conducted in a medium-size store operated by a large, nationally known chain of supermarkets, located in a city in the southwestern U.S., having a population of approximately 150,000. The store’s patrons are mostly middle-class Anglo-Saxons. Furthermore, the store had existed at its current location for several years and had a reasonably stable core market. So, this being said, the study covered a nine-week period, starting on January 28 and ending on March 31, 1980.

You need to know this because timing was very important, as it made it possible to nicely fit nine weeks between two holidays-New Year’s and Easter-in a way which maximized experimental controls and minimized the effects of holiday shopping on the research results. It should also been known that all other variables, such as in-store promotions, store layout, point-of-purchase displays and all atmospheric conditions were kept as constant as possible.

By his study, manipulating the tempo of a background music in the supermarket, Milliman found out that music tempo significantly affected the pace of in-store traffic flow and also dollar sales volume. He discovered that a low music-tempo (meaning, in this case, -73 beats-minute), compared to a high tempo (+93 beats-minute), led to a decrease of the in-store traffic flow, but increased sales volumes.

In a later experiment, from 1986, Milliman found that the behavior of restaurants’ patrons was significantly affected by the music tempo. Thus, a low music tempo led to an increase of customer’s length of stay, but also increased the average dollar amount of bar charges per customer. Milliman’s first results (1986) were confirmed by a more recent study, from 1999, led by Caldwell and Hibbert. Furthermore, they found that a low music tempo would increase money spent on both food and drink at the restaurant.

What type of background music you choose to play in your store also has an effect

But tempo or sound level are not the only variables that affect your customers’ behavior.  Two researchers, Areni and Kim (1993), had an experiment: they used Classical versus Top-Forty background music in a wine store. They found that classical music increased the number of sales and stimulated the customers to select more expensive merchandise in that store. The prestigious music persuaded the customers to buy prestigious wines.

These results were confirmed by a recent experiment conducted by researchers North, Shilcock and Hagreaves, in 2003. Their discovery?

They found that classical music influenced people in such a way that they spent more money in a restaurant when this type of music was diffused than when pop music was playing or when no music was used. Yalch and Spangenberg, other researchers, also stated, back in 1993, that classical music evokes the perception of higher prices store merchandise.

They supported the notion that music must be appropriate for the context in which it is employed, in order to enhance persuasion. North, Hargreaves and McKendrick (1999) conducted an empirical evaluation which supported this notion too.

The three found that customers’ selection of French and German wines was strongly affected by the origin of the music played in the background; more specifically, they found that French music led to French wines outselling German ones, while German music led to obtain the opposite effect on sales.

Since I already mentioned so many researchers, why not add some more? Stratton (1992), Cain-Smith and Curnow (1966), conducted an experiment in which they varied the sound level of the same music played in two supermarkets. They found that the customers spent significantly less time in the markets during the loud session than they did during the soft ones. However, they found no significant difference in sales between the two sessions.

The empirical studies cited above – all conducted inside of shops, supermarkets or shop-malls – seem to attest that background music has a positive impact on consumer’s behavior.

All in all, music has been known to have a significant effect on human responses from centuries. From a marketing perspective, music is able to affect shopper behavior (Reda, 1998) and also, to create a pleasurable environment for shoppers (Jain & Bagdare, 2011). It is very important to know that music is the only thing that affects people for the entire time they are in a store, beside heat and lighting (Sweeney & Wyber, 2002).

Also, keep in mind that the music is more effective if it matches the general situational context of the purchase (as Mowen & Minor state too, in 1998). Also, a few studies reported that musical variables such as genre, tempo and volume may be controlled to reach the desired effects in term of purchase behavior, time perception and emotions.