Should you play the background music your customers like?

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For years the basic approach when choosing instore background music has been to look at the preferences of the target audience. If a fashion shop, for instance, has trendy young visitors who go to techno parties in the weekends the obvious choice is to have techno music playing in the shop. The question that arises is: Is this the most profitable approach for the retailer? Should you worry about your customer’s taste?

There are quite a few reasons why your customer’s taste should not be your first consideration. First, let’s look at what musical preference actually is. Why do I prefer specific music? Maybe I like a certain genre of music because it get’s me in a party mood. Or maybe because it helps me relax. Another reason might be that it represents a specific subculture that I feel at home with. Perhaps the lyrics help me process emotions and make me feel understood. Maybe I have been raised with this kind of music and it just stuck with me.

Obviously there are many different causes (most of which are inexplicable and/or subconscious) behind musical preference. Following from this, is the fact that the way we consume music is strongly context dependent. I like baroque music, but not on a saturday night in a club. I like dubstep, but only when I feel energized and active. The rise of portable audio has given us ultimate control over what we hear at all times, and so we create our own personal soundtrack with music that matches our mood and activities.

So to say “My customers like R&B, so I should play R&B in my shop” seems a bit random. What do you want your customers to experience? What state of mind is preferable? What physiological state would make them most likely to spend money? Do you want them to spend more time in your shop? Or should they leave quickly so you can service more people? Should they feel relaxed and at ease? Or excited and stimulated? What kind of quality and price perception are you trying to communicate? These are all questions that deserve precedence over taste.

Next, there is the problem of defining taste. I have seen many retailers doing research into the musical taste of their customers. Often they will ask questions like “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate R&B music?”. If, for instance, on average people give R&B music an 8, the conclusion is “R&B music is liked by our customers”. And these retailers come to me and proudly say: “I have done thorough research and we should play R&B music!” The problem is, Tina Turner is considered to be an R&B artist, and so is Eminem. But I challenge you to find people who like both!

Musical taste is extremely complex. And defining the taste of a specific group of people is nigh on impossible. Besides the problem of defining a genre, there is also the fact that averages become very broad very quickly. I once consulted a client who had hired a music researcher to define the taste of his target audience. The problem was that his target audience was basically a broad representation of society as a whole. And so after a lengthy and expensive research project they found that the target audience liked pop music. Pop as in popular. The music that is sold and listened to most. Surprising right?

Stil, there are ways to come up with averages that are roughly representative for your target audience. And so it is often technically possible to pick out music that is popular with your customers. Let’s jump to the question “Should you?”

The answer lies in how we process music when listening on a subconscious level. When we are shopping, we are focussed on something other than music. So it is manipulating us quietly in the background. The intriguing result, as multiple studies have shown, is that we transfer our musical perception onto what we are focussed on. For instance, studies have shown that when listening to light-footed fresh classical music, wine tastes fresh and light. When tasting the same wine while heavy strong classical music is playing, the wine is perceived as being heavier and more full-bodied as well. We perceive the experience as a whole, without being conscious of it. This why a holistic approach is so rewarding in retail.

Playing music that is subconsciously related to the desired perception is therefore very important in retail. This is, for instance, why sophisticated music will support a higher quality perception and lead to people being prepared to spend more money. Making the total shopping experience positive can be done by playing music that people like.

So basically, in most cases it is good practice to try and find the music that your target audience likes. It is, however, only one step in creating a valid and effective music strategy. It is much more important to find music that supports your strategy and goals and only then make sure that the specific songs are liked. The important thing is that your customers have a positive feeling about the music, not that it is necessarily their favorite.

Things change when you are targeting a very specific subculture. In such cases it might be rewarding to try and identify if there is a specific musical subculture related to it and try and find the suited music there. This is often the case in high end fashion stores.

Then there is the issue of retailers dealing with very broad target audiences. I already addressed the client who discovered that his broad clientele probably preferred pop music. This is logical since pop music has been around for over a century and covers many different sub genres that are often accessible and none too extreme. This creates a pitfall of drowning in a very broad musical selection. Supermarkets often fall victim to this trend of extremely average musical programming. Something for all. Lady Gaga after a Beatles song and Whitney Houston after that.

The result is background music that is so average and diverse that it looses all identity. Pop radio without the commercials and dj’s. The songs lie so far apart that every song affects the customers differently and you loose any form of congruency and purpose.

I often advise such clients to focus on their own brand and how it translates into music. Then try and find some common ground in the taste of their visitors and create a much narrower program that has a clear auditive identity. This way you optimally use this powerful medium to your advantage, creating a congruent and efficient retail environment.

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

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