Next time you’re bopping your head to the beat at your favorite boutique or humming along to the songs at Starbucks, consider this: The music you’re listening to may directly influence how much money you spend there.
In fact, the soundtrack you’re shopping to was specifically selected not just to set the mood but to create the perfect conditions for spending money. Retailers know that selling their products is largely about selling an emotion, and music has a subconsciously seductive, nostalgia-inspired pull on both our heart and pocketbook strings.
It’s not about appealing to your personal taste; it’s about creating an immersive experience that encourages you to get lost in your role as consumer. Many stores go so far as to hire “audio architects” to design a custom soundscape to alter customers’ mood in a way that encourages them to purchase whatever the store is selling—whether it be a cup of coffee or a cashmere cardigan.
So how can you resist? Pay close attention to these 5 things next time you walk into a store. (You may still succumb to spending, but at least you’ll do it consciously.)
Tempo: Studies have shown that we have a physiological response to music tempos. Our heart rates increase with the beat and slows when the tempo decreases. An upbeat tempo in a major key has been shown to positively alter a shopper’s mood—and encourage spending. Slower tempos, however, can also benefit certain types of retail environments, like bookstores, where the music is mellow and soothing, encouraging shoppers to spend more time browsing and reading, and ultimately, purchasing more.
Volume: Loud music decreases the average time a consumer spends in a store. However, research indicates that per-minute sales go up when the music is cranked, as is the case with stores like Armani Exchange and Topshop. Similar to the high we get from discount shopping, intense, pulsating music is another way that consumers make emotionally-charged impulse purchases (often to experience buyers’ remorse once they’re home and the music, and euphoria, has faded).
Genre: Classical music has been proven to trigger increased spending, especially in customer service-driven stores, like Victoria’s Secret. In addition to the ways in which it affects the consumers physically, it also communicates a subliminal message of affluence — leading the shopper to believe the products are more upscale, and preparing her to spend more money. Department stores like Nordstrom and Von Maur have even gone so far as to hire a classical pianist to play in stores, transforming the retail space into an environment of refinement and expensive taste.
Zoning: The concept of ‘zoning’ music (usually in department stores or other large retail spaces, like Toys “R” Us) involves playing different music in different areas of the store, relative to what they’re selling. This strategic variation in the shopping soundtrack entertains and surprises you while you shop, keeping you uniquely engaged in each aisle.
Soundtracks for sale: In addition to playing carefully curated playlists in-store, one of the latest trends in retail theater and branding offers a “take it home” tactic: many stores sell CDs of their store soundtracks. Nike and Victoria’s Secret sell branded CDs, and Starbucks has gone so far as to create an entire Starbucks-themed music subculture, as well as their own record label, Hear Music. So you connect with the music in the store, then are reminded of the brand while you listen to the tunes at home and on your iPod—a lyrical advertisement that you voluntarily listen to again and again. Pretty brilliant.
Want to test your resistance? Enter a retail store and browse for a few minutes. Then put on headphones and tune into music that is the opposite of what’s playing in the store. Do you feel a difference? Are your purchasing impulses altered in any way?
Another option: Create your own soundtrack. Apps like HABU let you organize your music library into moods, so you can be the audio architect of your shopping experience.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the founder of Sociology of Style, which blends social science with pop culture analysis to offer practical advice on image-related issues. Sign up for Sociology of Style and follow her on Twitter.