Turn up the volume! Or not! – A guide to instore music loudness for fashion retail

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When I tell people I work as an instore music consultant the first reaction is often: “Ah so you’re responsible for that awful loud music in fashion stores! Drives me crazy!” Instore music loudness is obviously a controversial matter. If there are so many negative reactions, why do they play such loud music? And should they? I will try to shed some light on the subject in this article.

Let’s start with the question why. Why such loud music?

The most common theory behind playing loud music in fashion stores is that it creates an atmosphere that is reminiscent of night life and clubbing. You want to look your best in such venues and by triggering the same sort of feel instore, retailers hope to get you to spend that little extra money on the perfect outfit.

Another explanation is that youth is hard to trigger. Being used to an overload of sensory input by constantly listening to music and playing with cell phones and game devices, they might require some additional stimulation to really feel engaged. Have you seen a kid do homework lately? TV on, friends on videochat, Facebook on a tablet, Twitter on the phone and somewhere between all that tech gear you might find a book. No wonder you need a little extra volume to get their attention!

So let’s look at the scientific backing of the two theories above. Concerning the club-like atmosphere, I have to say it sounds plausible but I have never come across any scientific evidence of this tactic actually working. We are facilitating research into the matter at the moment so keep an eye on Triggerpulling for the publication of the results somewhere over the coming months.

When it comes to engaging youth by upping the sensory input you supply, I am not aware of any studies proving this theory either. It is, however, clear that young people experience more sensory input nowadays than, say, thirty years ago. It is also proven that higher musical volume delivers a heavier sensorial load on the brain. The key part of the theory is, however, that young people require the heavier stimulation of loud music to even be engaged at all. I have not seen any scientific backing of this concept as of yet.

So let’s look at possible reasons not to play loud music.

First, there is time perception and speed of activity. As I have addressed in my previous article, our relationship with time is strongly influenced by the intensity of the sensory input we receive. Louder music equals a heavier sensorial load on the brain.

A recent study we conducted proved that playing loud music shortens the average customer’s shopping time. Interestingly, playing no music and playing loud music triggered the same behavior of people shopping more quickly. Playing soft music slowed people down and stretched the shopping time by several percents. This study was conducted in a supermarket setting though, so it might not be representative for the fashion industry. Still, it is in line with the theory of how we perceive time and adjust our behavior to it.

So if a lengthy customer visit (and the higher chances of impulse purchases and a thorough sales talk that come with it) is what you are after. Loud music is probably not the way to go.

Second, there is the influence of musical loudness on speech intelligibility. Music masks speech. Especially music that contains vocals of its own. You have to consider that adding music to an environment lowers the intelligibility of your conversations and this effect is accelerated by turning up the volume.

So if you invest in qualified store personnel and train them to skillfully advise your clients you might not benefit from drowning their carefully chosen words in loud music. If, on the other hand, you prefer the concept of self-service and low cost employees, turning up the volume a bit might not present any issues.

Then there is the effect of music on the secretion of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Louder music triggers the release of such hormones. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Stress can be both positive (exciting) and negative (fatiguing, overloading). Obviously loud music in fashion retail is aimed to excite. This is where the controversy originates. By exciting some people, you will fatigue and overload others. The excited ones might love your store and buy more. The overloaded ones might get out as quickly as they can.

All in all there is not a single definitive answer to the question “Should I play loud music in my shop?”. Keep in mind though that it can have strong sales-lowering effects and you should therefore only turn up the volume if you have a well though out strategic purpose to do so. Following the fashion industry standard of loud instore music just because it is the industry standard is probably a poor choice.

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