Silence Isn’t Always Golden


Written by Ash Amrite, Managing Partner, CORD and edited by Elisa Harris, Founding Partner, CORD.

Marks and Spencer’s recent announcement to switch off background music across 300 stores nationwide raises a number of wider questions around the role of music in retail spaces and the effect it can have on customer experience and consumer behaviour.

M&S’s decision was reached, according to a spokesman, as a “result of extensive research and feedback from our customers and colleagues”.

With new CEO Steve Rowe keen to win back a lapsed customer base of women 50+ there has been much speculation within the industry over what’s driven the decision to pull the switch on piped music after 10 years across 300 stores. What was it about the music itself that Mrs M&S and employees found so off-putting? Were the playlists repetitive? Was the music too loud or too soft?

M&S isn’t alone in its decision to create a silent space to shop. That other stalwart of British retail John Lewis, recently confirmed it too would not be introducing piped music at any point soon. As Marketing Director Craig Lewis put it  “The calmness of the John Lewis shopping experience is held in high regard by our customers and we would not wish to compromise this in any way.”

So whilst it’s encouraging to see both of these brands putting their customers needs first, silence may not always prove to be golden from a commercial perspective. For these retail brands music plays a relevant role in how they are perceived and identified by consumers. Whether it be John Lewis’s annual festive reinterpretation of a popular track or M&S ‘s use of sprightly and colourful food choreography soundtracked by Clean Bandit. In both cases there appears to an opportunity  missed to deliver a coherent and engaging brand experience instore.

Behaviour Change

The research supports the theory it seems. Professor Adrian North, head of the school of psychology at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and an expert on the psychology of music, says he disagrees with the decision made by M&S. “The research shows that music can have a double-digit impact on sales,” he says, “so turning off that source of revenue is a poor decision.”

“Music in shops can influence the speed at which customers shop, the amount they browse, the amount they spend, the amount they are prepared to spend, the products they choose, the parts of the premises they visit and the amount of time they think they have spent on the premises. “

Different genres of music can also affect behaviour too. Want customers to spend more money? Play classical music. Want them to shop more slowly and browse more? Play slow music. Want your shoppers to make more impulsive purchase decisions ? Create an Abercrombie & Fitch playlist and play it at full volume in a clothing store masquerading as a nightclub.

From Factory to Supermarket

Music has been used to influence human behaviour for centuries, from the earliest religious rituals to providing a common soundtrack for social & political struggle.


However it wasn’t until 1922 when General George Squier invented Muzak - a mechanism to deliver music to workplaces via electrical wires. He realized that the transmission of music increased productivity of his own employees and conducted in house research to produce a series of case studies to prove the case. Soon afterwards he started selling piped Muzak to commercial clients.

As a result, the BBC then began to broadcast music in factories during World War II in order to awaken fatigued workers and following the war background music was everywhere in the US, piped into offices, department stores, supermarkets, restaurants, factories and even a few elevators. As George Lanza, author of Elevator Music says, “It became a pervasive soundtrack for much of American Life”.

Fast forward to the 21st century and across the pond to the UK. The supermarket chain Spar recently announced a variation on this theme with the launch of its own in-house radio station, Spar Live,broadcasting a mix of tailored playlists, chat, promotional and customer services messages.

A spokesman said “It helps to improve the atmosphere in-store – gives staff a station of their own. It provides consistency from one store to the next and most importantly the advertising opportunities for both proprietary brands and Spar’s ‘real deals’ increase sales within stores.”

The data so far is compelling with 22% of listeners saying the station had made them aware of products and special offers, with 7% saying they had been prompted to purchase a product.

Whilst the concept of in-store radio is hardly new, it is becoming increasingly commonplace and the programming more nuanced so that the music matches the broad demographic and mirrors trading patterns, with different music styles more prominent at different times of day.

In the UK alone other retail chains such as Londis,The Co-Op, Texaco service stations, Dixons, Iceland and Lloydspharmacy have rolled out similar services across their branches with positive results.

The Science 

A number of research studies and experiments over the years have demonstrated that music and sound can affect human behaviour in a variety of different ways. Essentially these fall into four categories: physiological, behavioural, psychological and cognitive.

So, for instance if someone is put off by very loud music being played in a certain area of a store they will move away from it – a behavioural reaction.

In addition there are three key characteristics of music that can influence behaviour in a retail environment - tempo, volume and genre.

In 1982 a study in a New York City grocery store investigated the effect of music tempo on shoppers’ buying behaviors. The experimental design was simple but the results were insightful: playing slow music led to A) significantly more time spent in the store and B) a significant increase (32%) in gross product sales when compared to behaviour when fast music was playing.

The effects of tempo were also explored in a restaurant.  Slow music caused customers to spend a significantly higher dollar amount on alcohol and spent more time eating while fast music led to a faster meal and shorter wait times for incoming patrons.

In 1985, a study by Fairfield University in Connecticut reported that people ate faster when background music was sped up, from 3.83 to 4.4 bites per minute whilst another highlighted that higher volume levels  led beer drinkers in a bar to drink more. When the bar’s music was 72 decibels, people ordered an average of 2.6 drinks and took 14.5 minutes to finish one. But when the volume was turned up to 88 decibels, customers ordered an average of 3.4 drinks and took 11.5 minutes to finish each one.

An opportunity to Connect, Engage and Influence 

Our musical reactions are based on millions of years of evolved behaviours, such that many of our brain responses are fast, automatic, and beyond our control. The benefits to understanding the potential influence of music on behaviour and thought processes are significant and immediate. By careful application of brands can improve their retail environments and reap the  commercial benefits.

So, whilst Marks & Spencer’s decision to switch off music in their stores may have achieved the short term goal of assuaging a certain segment of their customer base, they seem to have missed a far greater opportunity to connect with and influence their consumers behaviour using music and sound. The process begins with aligning objectives, brand personality, consumer insights and understanding how to maximise an auditory environment.