The past and the future of instore music


In this article I will review the developments that instore music has been through and I will try to shed some light on where the future is taking us. What will shops sound like some years from now?

Let’s start by taking a look at the past. Tracing the roots of background music leads us to Erik Satie. The French romantic composer wrote quite a few scores for plays and felt the music should be unobtrusive and in the background. He described his discrete musical style as musique d’ameublement, or ‘furniture music’ in the year 1920. Basically, he was the first known example of a composer aiming to create music that is meant to be an atmospheric element in the background.

Only two years later, an American by the name of George Squier patented a system that allowed him to distribute music from grammophone records to factory halls over power lines. The idea being to boost productivity and morale among factory workers. Inspired by the brand name Kodak, he put the words music and Kodak together and named his new enterprise ‘Muzak’.

The company was built around the fact that music has a profound influence on people. Squier found that people were more productive when he piped specific kinds of music into the factories. Muzak conducted thorough research to gain a deeper understanding of how people are affected by music. Such music psychology and behavioral psychology in a commercial application was way ahead of its time.

Muzak secured its place in the music industry and became America’s number one retail background music supplier. In 2011, the company was bought by my current employer: Mood Media, or now simply ‘Mood’.

Companies like Mood have been piping music into shops, malls, restaurants, bars, hotels even parking lots for decades. But the way they do it has evolved over time. Obviously technology changed. Grammophones turned into tape. Tape turned into CDs. Music could be transferred by satellite and nowadays the majority of music distribution from suppliers to retailers takes place online.

So the medium changed. Now what about the material? Obviously, music has changed over the past century and instore music suppliers have worked hard to be at the forefront of musical trends. As technology progressed we were able to become more and more up to date in our content. So the latest hits are audible in shops as soon as they hit the radio.

Music has also become a key part in the overall feel of a retail or gastronomy venue. People started to realize how strongly music affected the atmosphere and so specific ‘branded’ channels were developed for large brands. Brand-A wants to sound different from Brand-B and so the brand DNA and values are translated into a custom music profile with its own unique blend of genres.

Another development spurred on by technological progress was the emergence of instore commercials. It became easy and affordable to have custom messages recorded and piped onto the shop floor. Modern online systems can be updated instantly so weekly or even daily promotions or sales can be communicated via instore commercials.

Technology also opened up the possibility to work with day parts. The music that would set the right mood in the morning might not work so well in the afternoon. So different music profiles were developed for different parts of the day. Again, the move to online systems has made this even easier and more affordable.

Over the years, instore music has become more and more reminiscent of radio. An instore music profile is created in much the same way as a radio format. In fact, it is quite common for instore music programmers and radio format managers or music directors to move from instore to radio or vice-versa.

There is, however, a crucial difference between the two fields. Radio is primarily a source of entertainment. It is key to play the music that is favored by the target audience, in order to attract a fan base. Instore music is a shopper marketing instrument. Its primary function is to create a positive attitude towards a retail venue and to boost sales. This is why it is unadvisable to play radio in a shop. The music was selected for a totally different purpose and is therefore unlikely to do anything for your formula.

In the nineties of the past century and the zeroes of this one, this radio approach took the upper hand. Instore music programmers were more music guru than retail marketing connoisseur. Instore music developed into hit music channels and particularly fashion stores cranked up the volume and turned background music into foreground music.

Over time, the spirit of George Squier had disappeared. Music had moved from an influential science-based manipulation tool, to a booming mood maker.

But now, things are changing again. The retail world turned to science. A store is no longer a room in which products can be bought, but it has become a meticulously designed space, purpose built to maximize sales and create happy customers. Large retailers are constantly conducting research to find out how the slightest changes in colors, shapes, presentation, light, scent, packaging, pricing, personnel and promotion affect buying behavior.

Instore music follows. Research has shown that music alone can boost sales by up to twenty percent. It isn’t as easy as the music suppliers used to think though. It was commonly accepted wisdom that the desired effects would be reached by finding the music that is most liked by the target audience. Hence the radio-like approach. We now know, this is only the tip of the iceberg though.

Today, the instore music industry is conducting more research than ever to find out how it can influence experience and buying behavior. Huge steps have been taken here and it is now possible to effectively alter specific perception variables such as time perception, quality perception, price perception, privacy perception, safety perception and comfort using music only. The result is a music profile that is much more supportive of the formula and its goals than ever before.

So what about the future? Where will we go from here? Well, the move towards research and strategy is far from complete. The frontrunners have only scratched the surface of what is possible using behavioral psychology and psycho acoustics. And the lagging instore media suppliers have not even started to apply these sciences yet. It is quite a conservative bunch. We can expect to develop a much deeper understanding as we gain greater knowledge on the matter.

I think we will also see an on-site research approach in the near future. As instore music suppliers promise more precise manipulation of behavior and perception, retailers are going to want to have some evidence. And the music supplier will need feedback to see if he is on the right track. It is not an exact science, so testing and adapting is crucial. I think we will see more feedback from retailers who will start to measure consumer experience and behavior in their shops.

Another development I am foreseeing is the rise of the integrated music strategy. We now create music profiles based on music strategies. These documents form a translation from the retail formula and its goals, into musical variables. It ensures that the music is supportive of the formula and its intentions. At the moment, such a strategic approach is mainly applied to instore music. I think we will find that enterprises demand a more integrated approach where music in commercials, online, on-hold, instore, in product and in branding are in perfect harmony. I will devote an entire article to this subject soon, so stay posted!

We might also see some radical changes in common practice as knowledge grows. For instance, playing music at very high volumes in fashion shops has become an industry-wide standard. The first tentative research projects show that this might be harmful to the actual performance of these shops in terms of revenues and customer satisfaction. As more research is conducted we might find a definitive answer to the question ‘does turning up the music benefit or harm fashion stores?’ This could trigger great change.

On the technology front, I predict ‘zoning’ might take off as highly focussed loudspeaker technology improves and becomes more affordable. Perhaps the music or sound in the fruit department should differ from the music in the bread department of a specific supermarket. Again, research will have to show us the way here.

Another possible innovation could be a move from music to sound. I doubt if the industry will take this step, but I do think it should. We might find that certain sounds are more beneficial in specific cases than music. Perhaps rustling leaves and birdsong would benefit an outdoor supplies store more than music.

We might also see that adding a sound track to the music track could work well. Perhaps a noise-drowning static tone could cancel out the noise of refrigerators in a supermarket to make acoustical room for the music.

The most certain development I feel is the move towards the strategic science-based implementation of instore music. In the current saturated market the only way to distinguish yourself as an intstore music supplier is by being cheap. And that is not a very desirable way to compete. Creating music profiles that measurably boost sales and customer satisfaction adds great value. It also justifies the investment for a retailer, since these tough economical times require a solid return on investment.

It is time to take the heritage of Erik Satie and George Squire to the next level. Wherever the future will lead us, exciting times are ahead for instore music!

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

Leave a reply


  1. Caloy Hinolan 26 juni, 2013 at 18:46 Beantwoorden

    Seems you nailed this on the head. As the market as filled with more providers, the ones that will previal will be those that will go the scientific route. Substance rather than cheap pricing.


    Caloy Hinolan

  2. Thomas van Straaten 27 juni, 2013 at 09:29 Beantwoorden

    Hello Caloy,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Much appreciated.
    Good to hear more professionals in instore media share this vision. There is so much more depth to be expored, would be a waste to miss out due to price fighting strategies.



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