Setting the right volume for your instore music


Once you have carefully crafted the perfect music profile to fit your brand and have the desired influence on shopper perception and behavior, it is time to set the right volume. It might sound like an insignificant detail, but music loudness can make or break the music’s effect on your customers. Let’s have a look at the implications.

Speech intelligibility
First of all, there is the practical side of things. If you have highly trained sales personnel who are required to make a real connection with your clients, the last thing you want is to drown their conversations in loud music. It will make your employees look stupid. Seriously.

Time perception
Then there is the effect loudness has on time perception. Multiple studies have shown that turning up the music’s volume speeds up perceived time. This means the average visit duration shortens by boosting music loudness. A recent study we have conducted of our own showed us that people spent most time in a shop when soft music was playing. Both no music and loud music conditions showed shorter shopping times. So keep in mind: want to keep people in your shop for longer? Then play music at low volume. 

Experience versus functionality
For some retailers, music is mainly intended to add a specific experience. Fashion retail, for instance, often uses music to communicate a specific subculture image. It is commonly accepted to play the music at higher volume in such cases. You do run a risk of damaging your commercial performance though. A preliminary test in a fashion store showed people were less likely to try on clothes and make a purchase when loud music was playing, as compared to a more modest volume.

When music is implemented to achieve functional goals, such as maximizing shopping time, customer satisfaction or willingness to spend money, it is usually advisable to have the music playing at lower volumes. This usually makes for higher ratings in all sorts of consumer liking measurements and purchase behavior.

Technical challenges
Loud music is much easier to implement technically than soft music is. Provided that the acoustics are in order, a high output sound system will usually do the job just fine. In fashion retail we often see the implementation of additional subwoofers to add a bit of a wow-factor.

Soft music is much more challenging to get right. The level of ambient noise in typical shops is quite high. Softer music is often drowned in this noise floor. A typical problem in supermarkets, for instance, is that you only hear the highest vocal tones of the singer cutting through. This makes for a messy, and plain annoying sonic backdrop.

The best solution is to go for more speakers. Adding more speakers, then turning down the volume makes for a much more homogenous sonic backdrop. This will allow you to use lower volumes, without necessarily losing musical content in the process.

How to get it right quickly
I am not usually into one-size-fits-all solutions, but I will make an exception. Here’s how to set the volume just right in 90% of the cases: Wait for the store to be medium-crowded. Turn the volume all the way down to zero. Have a colleague listen in the middle of the space. Slowly turn up the volume until you colleague indicates the music is completely audible without important details being drowned out (all instruments should be clearly identifiable). Next, find the loudest spot in the space, usually under one of the loudspeakers. Check if you can have an effortless conversation without raising your voice and without having to try too hard to understand your colleague. If not, turn the volume down until you can. You have now set a volume that maximizes positive impact by ensuring the music is undistorted and laid on top of the typical noise floor, while minimizing negative impact by enabling comfortable conversation.

Thomas van Straaten
Owner of Sonic Effect

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