Sound Bite: Supermarket noise


To give you an idea of the possibilities, impossibilities, problems and challenges that arise when dealing with instore music I will regularly analyze the soundscape of a retail or gastronomy environment and share my findings with you. First up: a local supermarket.

This sound file contains a short recording I made while shopping for groceries. It might sound like random noise to you, but upon closer inspection we can make out some interesting details.

When you listen to a clip like this from behind your computer the first thing you might notice is how noisy it is. When you enter the supermarket you are tempted to only notice the music, since the rest of the noise is coherent with your visual experience. This is a little trick of the mind to keep the amount of data that needs our analysis manageable. That is why it is so refreshing to analyze a soundscape out of its normal physical context. I bet the shop owner would be surprised by the noise if he heard it like this.

Okay so let’s start analyzing! My personal view is that the best way to start a painting is with a clean canvas. So when you implement music in retail, it is preferable to have a quiet background to start with. Why? So the music does not conflict or interfere with other sounds and to keep the overall sound level manageable. Otherwise it will become noise upon noise, which is messy and counteracts the positive effects you are chasing.

This clip underlines my point. The open cooling systems in the shop might keep your meat fresh, but they make a lot of noise. You hear a distinct hiss throughout the clip that covers a very broad frequency range (from low to high pitch). It is by far the loudest noise and you hear that the music has trouble rising above it.

A great development is the disappearance of metal shopping carts in favor of plastic ones. I do not know what the environmental implications are, but talking from a sonic point of view this is a giant leap forward. They are much, much quieter.

Until…the retailer forgets to oil the wheels every now and then. Halfway through the clip you will hear the annoying squealing of the wheels. This is typically the kind of noise that triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, causing the consumer to feel less comfortable. This might sound like nitpicking but trust me, if you add up all these tiny negative sounds you end up with a soundscape that is working against the retailer’s commercial strategy, instead of supporting it.

In fact, studies have shown that removing these unwanted sounds, and replacing them with intentional, positive sound and music can raise sales by as much as 30%!

So let’s move away from the incidental sound and take a look at what the retailer consciously added: music.

We immediately find a problem when we look at the interaction between the environmental noise and the music. The only part of the music that is able to top the noise is the singer’s voice. This makes what should have been a relaxing, easy going background into a fragmented and messy foreground noise. The poor sound system does not help either, by making the voice sound as if amplified by a megaphone.

How to fix this? First, use better speakers. That’s simple. Second, it is advisable to concentrate the music on quiet parts of the store. The fresh food departments where these loud cooling system are placed, do not benefit from adding even more sound. So by choosing different speakers and placing them strategically, a huge improvement could be made.

So how about the song itself. We hear Engelbert Humperdinck, which might sound a bit old fashioned. The average supermarket has a very broad audience though. So with that in mind this easy going homely sound is not a bad choice here. It all depends on the songs that come before and after as well.

So there it is, a quick analysis of the sounds in a local supermarket. It is all about awareness. Most retailers do now realize how big of an impact sound has on our overall perception and behavior. Fine-tuning the little details can result in considerable effects on customer satisfaction and ultimately: sales!

If you wish to have your shop(s) analyzed, do not hesitate to contact me!

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