Is it Christmas yet? Music's role in making cash registers ring

Opinion: retailers know that music is for life and not just for Christmas as what they play in-store all year round has a huge effect on business
By Prof Joseph Coughlan, School of Business

The Christmas ads are here. Marks & Spencer has plumped for a tie in with Paddington Bear and Aldi have given Kevin the carrot a new role as investigator as he finds his true love with Katie on what looks suspiciously like the Orient Express. Debenhams have even done a teaser ad for their own campaign which is very Cinderella-esque. The long awaited John Lewis ad is literally monstrous!
Christmas ads are big business and create a significant amount of awareness, whether we like the campaign or not. For instance, the music choices that accompany these campaigns turn into a significant gift of royalties for writers and artists. M&S have gone for a bespoke song for their campaign, whereas John Lewis asked Elbow to cover The Beatles’ "Golden Slumbers".

While switching off social media and the television are options to avoid the ads, avoiding the music is much more difficult. The music is designed to capture our attention and, in the case of many of the current campaigns, there is more than a touch of the "I think I know this track" about them. This familiarity is played upon by the retailers in both advertising and how they use music in-store.
Music in retail is an important business. Research has considered music as a key variable that can be tailored for use in retail, and indeed any service business. While research is not clear on the particular effects that a particular artist, genre or song can have on an individual, there are some general elements that are used by retailers. 

Slow, fast, slow
Research shows that slower tempo music can create a more calming environment for the customer, which is why upscale retail stores, especially in fashion, play calming music. It is an attempt to ensure that individuals do not feel rushed in making expensive decisions and know that they can take the time. This is perhaps also why your dentist or doctor might play classical music in their waiting rooms, so that the music can calm the natural anxiety one might feel in that area.
Many say we live our lives to a certain beat and studies have shown that individuals literally move to the tempo of background music so retailers vary the tempo of their music during the day. Typically a retailer will play faster music at a time when the store is busy to speed individuals along and play slower music at less busy times to encourage browsing.

Music can also interfere with our perceptions of time, which is especially relevant when waiting. Studies have shown that we do not notice the passage of time as clearly when we are listening to music. Generally we feel that less time has passed than actually has passed, a useful issue when there are queues in retail service environments.

Music that is in harmony with the retailer type is also important. Achieving this is more of a challenge in the situation where there are multiple retailers in close proximity all with their unique sounds. This is a particular issue for shopping centre managers who wish to create an atmosphere across the entire complex, but yet not drown out any attempts by individual stores to create their own ambience. 

Music congruity is also important in terms of the products sold by retailers. Many fashion-oriented stores play music mixes that appeal to a particular age group. The point is that their typical customer will feel that the music being played is familiar and therefore they feel happy in the store. Being happy and contented is a useful trait for a retailer to encourage when they want their customer to spend.

While we ooh and aah at the cuteness of Paddington Bear, ponder about monsters under the bed and try to tell children that Kevin the carrot is not a real carrot, spare a thought for those who work in retail in the coming weeks. While we can run (screaming optional) from stores that play Christmas music, employees do not have that luxury. Employees have reported that listening to this type of music is akin to torture, and that actively not listening to it affects their productivity. This effect is predominantly due to the fact that the same music is on a continuous loop. As a result, employees are being over-exposed to the music and it is detrimental to them, and perhaps even their mental health.

On a practical level for a retailer, it is important not to just play music and hope for the best. Christmas music is relatively easy to get right. However, when the strains of "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree", "Last Christmas" and "All I Want For Christmas Is You" fade away and you need to choose music for the remainder of the year, think about your customers and how they are likely to react. It is easy to change music. You could just tune to a favourite radio station, run with your favourite playlist and then the decision is made for you.

One important consideration is the legal aspect. If you play music in-store, chat to the people at the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) because someone actually composed and performed the music that you are using so they also deserve their very small slice.

Music is also just one of the elements that can be considered in designing your retail environment. Our research has also such issues as temperature, cleanliness, colour and light are also important in designing a space where customers can feel empowered to make decisions, and employees can be productive. It is important that the entire environment is considered when making decisions and how the different elements work in harmony.