Harper Grey: What did you say?


The Savvy Shopper - Harper Grey

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, approximately 28 million Americans suffer from a hearing impairment. This number has doubled during the last 30 years – partially due to an aging population, and partially due to the invention of the Walkman. OK, I made that last part up. But I’m here to tell you: lots of people my age suffer from Def Leppard concert-induced hearing loss. When I was in junior high school, all the cool kids got Walkmans for Christmas. I suppose my parents hoped that by purchasing a Walkman for me, I’d turn into one of the cool kids. That didn’t work so well, but I did manage to blast my ear drums with decibel levels high enough that I could drown out even my little sister’s loudest tantrums.

There was a time when I preferred the music in my car to be loud enough that the vibrations shook the windows. I loved going to rock concerts and standing as close to the amps as possible. Not so much anymore. Maybe I’m getting old (and maybe I’m just finally mature enough to be concerned about my impending hearing loss), but now I like my music at a reasonable noise level.

Most stores pipe music in for their shoppers’ enjoyment. Various studies regarding music playing in the retail environment have concluded that different types of music have different impacts on purchase amounts, time spent in the store, and emotional feelings related to products. One study asked 560 customers of retail shops if they preferred stores that played music. 70% replied yes. 63% stated that they either “purchased more” or “probably purchased more” in stores with background music. (1) I’m one of the 70% that prefers stores that play music, but with one caveat… I have to be able to hear myself think.

I went to dinner with my husband earlier this week. We’re not fancy-pants diners; we typically tend to grab a quick meal at the local chain restaurant. We were shown to our vinyl booth and handed a laminated menu. “What are you having?” my husband asked. “What?” “Having. What are you having to eat?” he repeated. “What? I can’t hear you.” All I could hear was Katy Perry singing about her daisy dukes (bikini on top). We leaned in closer (which was kind of romantic, considering the atmosphere) and were able to communicate with a combination of pantomime and yelling.

When our waiter came to take our order, we asked if the music could be turned down a notch. He vaguely nodded. I don’t think he heard us. We spent the rest of the meal enjoying Adam Levine screaming at us that he moves like Jagger or Adele bemoaning the fact that sometimes it lasts in love (but sometimes it hurts instead). The food was fine, but we both left with a splitting headache.

I took my teenaged daughter shopping for some spring clothes the next day. She’s much cooler than I was at her age, so she wanted to go to the store where the cool kids shop. Which was fine. I can handle the claustrophobic store with the racks crammed together. Luckily my daughter doesn’t want to wear the daisy dukes (bikini on top), so there’s no fighting about inappropriate clothing. But the music was blasting pretty loud. My daughter held up a raggedy-looking flannel shirt and said something unintelligible. “What? Yes, I guess it’s OK . . . ” “No, Mom! I was saying why would you buy something with holes in it already! Uggggly.” Oh. Good. I pulled a hoodie off the sale rack. “How about this?” I couldn’t hear her reply. Turns out that facial expressions really do speak volumes. I finally left her there and sat on a bench out in the mall while she perused the racks. Maybe that particular retail shop doesn’t want parents hanging out, ruining the cool atmosphere with their geeky selves and has figured out that by blasting the music, the moms will be chased out. But I’m the one with the money, after all.

How’s the volume in your store? If you own a restaurant you should know that a 2003 University of Leicester study showed that customers stayed longer and spent more money in restaurants that played classical music at a low volume, compared to those in restaurants that played pop music at a high volume.(2) Of course, the Brits are probably much more refined than us Yanks, but their digestion can’t be that much different. It’s a lot easier to enjoy a meal when you can have a conversation with family and friends.

If you own a retail shop, you might be interested in a study conducted by Ronald E. Milliman, professor of marketing at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Milliman found that slower tempo music caused shoppers to move at a slower pace, which allowed them to look at merchandise more thoroughly. The slower pace resulted in a 38.2% sales volume increase compared to that of fast tempo music (4).

Another study found that loud music was one of the top irritants in retail stores (3). Most irritated were women over 35 years old. Which just happens to be the demographic that spends the most money on retail clothing every year (5).

Depending on your demographic, the type and volume of your music might have a huge impact on your sales. If your customers are older, they probably already have hearing loss, so if you want them to be able to communicate with sales staff and spouses, you should keep the volume down. If they’re young, their hearing is probably still fine and they prefer their music as loud as possible. But if they want to spend serious amounts of cash, they probably have their parents in tow. And we have enough hearing loss already, thank you very much.

(1) Burleson, 1979. Unpublished study. “Retailer and Consumer Attitudes Towards Background Music.” University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Business Administration.
(2) North, Shilcock, Hargreaves. “The Effect of Musical Style on Restaurant Customers’ Spending.” Environment and Behavior. 2003.
(3) Ronald E. Milliman. “Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers.” Journal of Marketing, 1982.
(4) D’Astous. “Irritating Aspects of the Shopping Environment.”
(5) United States Department of Labor Statistics. Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2010.