Jingle Bell Rock: Holiday Music Is More Than Just Background Noise

It’s around lunchtime at Ocean State Job Lot in Bloomfield and Bill Haley & His Comets are rockin’ around the Christmas tree as holiday shoppers push their carts up and down the aisles.

Most of them appear grimly determined to accomplish whatever it is they’ve come for. But a few others seem to be in no particular hurry to do anything other than look at the festive decorations and seasonal merchandise lining the shelves.

One woman smiles slightly as she browses through picture frames, while another can be heard singing along with the chorus — “You will get a sentimental feeling, when you hear, voices singing let’s be jolly, deck the halls with boughs of holly.”

It’s hard not to get into the holiday spirit when it’s being piped in through overhead speakers and inviting us to come a-wassailing or take a sleigh ride for two. Of course, that’s the whole point.

Although most people don’t think about the music they hear in malls, grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and other destinations, it’s almost always there. And far from serving as random background noise, songs and playlists are carefully chosen with consumers in mind.

“Retailers want to make sure that they’ve created a playlist that makes customers want to come into the store,” said Robin Coulter, professor of marketing and VOYA Financial Fellow who specializes in consumer behavior at the University of Connecticut School of Business in Storrs.

Beyond just promoting an inviting atmosphere, Coulter said that merchants also use music as a way of communicating their image. “Tempo, loudness and things like matching the image of the establishment to what they want to voice, and to complement the kinds of products they’re selling to the audience, are all things importantly constructed.”

So important, in fact, that many retailers opt to source out the creation of those playlists to music experts like InStore Audio Network, an audio advertising company in Princeton, N.J., that provides in-store music to a network of grocery, drug and mass merchandise stores.

“Music is the one thing that is going to affect every single shopper that walks in,” said InStore Audio Network’s music director, Jason McCormick. “You can walk in and miss 10 aisles, you can walk into a store and not see everything, but music is everywhere and reaches every single person, so it’s got to be right.”

And according to McCormick, there’s a whole science behind it, including identifying what brands should sound like and what their goals are. “If ‘family-friendly’ and ‘dependable’ describe the brand,” he said, “then you’re not going to want the music to be a discovery experience; instead, you want it to be safe and familiar, warm and friendly.”

Conversely, if a retailer wants its brand to appeal to a youthful or more edgy audience, it’s likely that its in-store playlist will include contemporary or high-energy music.

“It’s about understanding who the customer is and making sure that they have created an appropriate playlist that makes customers come into the store,” said Coulter. “Part of image orientation is about what retailers are looking to give the customer and the emotional experience they want to convey.”

For proof, look no farther than the local mall. From high-end department stores to teen clothing retailers, each offers its own music motif, and if you listen long enough it’s not difficult to hear the message.

“It can hit you in the face; I’m in the right place or I’m in the wrong place,” said McCormick.

And depending on the impression it makes, shoppers might either be drawn in or discouraged. For the most part, he said, a good playlist is one you don’t really notice and it just feels right for the space.

Often shoppers don’t even realize they are listening to music until a familiar song breaks into their thoughts, said Coulter. “Half of it you don’t even hear until something about it triggers you to start singing along. It’s not at a conscious level, despite the fact it’s going on around us.”

Conscious or not, most retailers hope that shoppers will identify positively with it, encouraging them to shop for a while longer or be inspired to return. “It’s been proven that music affects the mood of shoppers along with their attitude toward the store,” said McCormick.

It worked for Debra Robertson. The marketing director for a local soccer program and West Hartford resident recently made a last-minute trip to Westfarms mall to pick up some pants for her daughter and then unexpectedly stayed to do her holiday shopping.

“It’s funny, you rush into the mall focused on time and schedule, then the music gets to you and gets you into a warm, fuzzy mood,” she said. “It’s not a conscious thing until you hear a song and start singing along.”

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