Hey big spender: how the soundtrack we shop to influences our spending

Posted by
The Stylist web team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

You might not even notice it while you’re perusing the rails for a new outfit, but research shows music is fast becoming the retail industry’s secret weapon. Alix O’Neill investigates...

Photography: Ian Oliver Walsh

You’re enjoying a long weekend in the country with friends, swilling prosecco and trading work moans, when The Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There For You comes on the radio and the mood instantly lifts as you collectively sing and bop along while exchanging nostalgic tales of school discos and peppering the rest of your break with repeated Friends quotes.

But that’s the transformative power of music for you. The right melody can make you feel inspired (Stevie Nicks’ Edge Of Seventeen), amorous (Lionel Richie’s Stuck On You), nostalgic (Take That’s Relight My Fire), scared (The Exorcist would clearly be comical without the eerie score) or make you feel so psyched you’ll fist bump perfect strangers (anything by Beyoncé).

And now it seems it can make you spend too. Although the music played while you shop might feel like a small part of the shopping experience, it’s actually emerging as the fashion retailers’ secret weapon. M&S has recently decided to scrap its in-store soundtrack in a bid to allow shoppers to concentrate on the clothes without distraction. But other brands have now decided that harnessing music is the new secret weapon boosting sales. “It doesn’t make business sense not to play music,” claims retail guru Mary Portas, whose eponymous creative communications agency helps businesses and brands, such as Louis Vuitton and Acne, connect with consumers. “Music is mood- enhancing and mood-changing, and creates atmosphere. I’ve seen the worst and the best examples of music in stores. There are shops where staff put on their own playlists without thinking about their customers. Liberty, on the other hand, does it well – each floor has a different soundtrack.”

With the emotional power of music so well documented, it’s perhaps no surprise that retailers are giving serious thought to their soundtracks. “We respond to sound quicker than we do to any other sense,” says Joel Beckerman, author of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel And Buy. He cites a recent study by American researchers at Cornell University, who found airline food tastes bad because the noisy conditions of a plane’s cabin affects the way we perceive flavour. “Sound is the arbiter of our experiences. We make sense of what we see, taste and smell, based on what we hear.” And apparently, now we can add ‘buy’ to that list too.

Sound advice

Shopping soundtracks are, in fact, big business – licensing music to 85,346 shops generates £22.5million, according to 2015 figures from PRS For Music, the performing rights society – an organisation that looks after musicians’ ‘copyright’ and royalties when their music is played in public places. While stores rarely used to update their music more than once a year, now retailers have specific soundtracks, not just for each new season, but for specific hours and different days of the week, in tune with the trading pattern. “You can expect gentle rather than full-on sounds to start the day, then a gradual grow in tempo as the shops gets busier,” explains Rob Wood, creative director of bespoke music consultancy service Music Concierge, which works with brands such as Mulberry and Harvey Nichols. “There is a different atmosphere on a busy Saturday shopping day compared to a quiet Tuesday morning, and the music should reflect that.”

Music affects us in four ways, and all are key when shopping, explains Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency, which assists retailers in improving the customer experience by optimising their soundtracks. “Physiologically, music changes our heart rate and breathing. Psychologically, sound impacts our mood and emotion. Cognitively, noises affect how well we process information. Most importantly, music influences our behaviour – if shoppers get tired and stressed, they go home. Many retailers have never considered how their brand sounds. But we experience the world in five senses, not just one.”

And recent research backs up this viewpoint. “There has been an increase in neurological studies looking at the effect of music on the brain over the past decade,” says David Greenberg, a music psychologist at the University of Cambridge. “One of the major findings is that music activates reward and pleasure areas, such as the nucleus accumbens and amygdala, where the flow of the neurotransmitter dopamine is regulated.”

So if listening to music releases dopamine, one of the so-called ‘happy hormones’, do stores simply need to play upbeat music to make shoppers feel good? Not according to Greenberg, who recently published a study exploring how brain activity differs for people with varied musical preferences. “We found that those with ‘empathy’ brain types prefer mellow music that has emotional depth, compared with people who have ‘systemising’ brain types, who enjoy intense, positive and intellectually complex music.” In fact, your personality type could even dictate whether the hairs on the back of your neck rise at a particularly powerful note. A 2006 study from Hanover University revealed people who are “high on the personality trait called ‘openness’ are more likely to experience aesthetic chills when listening to music,” explains Greenberg.

Striking the right note

How, then, do brands use music to get in tune with our desire to buy? It has to reflect the store’s identity, according to Beckerman. “Abercrombie & Fitch is a great example of music that’s in sync with the brand’s personality. Its a/w 2016 soundtrack featuring Drake, Meghan Trainor, Ariana Grande and The Knocks instantly tells its core shoppers of teens and 20-somethings that this place is for them.” What’s more, Abercrombie & Fitch connects with its customers beyond the store by streaming its official 65-track seasonal playlist on YouTube.

And each store should take a different approach, depending on its customer base. A one-time study at Texas Tech University played classical and chart music on different days in a wine shop. On the days where classical music filled the space, customers purchased more expensive bottles of wine. The same theory applies to high-end boutiques, says Wood. “Premium stores want people to linger for longer, so their music should convey its high-end positioning. Slower tempo tracks relax people and encourage longer browsing, whereas fast music could stimulate people to move through the store at a quicker pace. Research by Professor Richard Yalch and Dr Eric Spangenberg published in the Journal Of Consumer Marketing compared the impact of playing easy listening music to top 40 tracks. They found customers under the age of 25 wanted to leave a shop more quickly when easy listening was playing, while those over 25 had less tolerance for chart music. Tellingly, the results were most marked for shoppers in clothing stores. “Music is as much a part of a brand’s identity as its name or décor, and plays a vital role for customer engagement,” says Paul Clements, commercial director at PRS for Music.

Of course, unless you’re a massive brand, chart-topping hits by Taylor Swift and co aren’t always financially viable. “Well-known music has the benefit of recognition effects, which are generally pleasurable, however, it might be more expensive in terms of acquiring a licence,”says Dr Daniel Mullensiefen of Goldsmiths College. “Unknown music might be better at creating a specific atmosphere. But it requires experienced experts to curate effective playlists or sound environments for commercial venues.” And it’s not just the artists that matter. A study by researchers at the University of Strathclyde revealed diners spent more than 13 minutes longer in a restaurant when they were listening to slower-tempo music, and that increase in ‘dwell time’ meant customers spent significantly more on food and drink. So how does that impact on a store like Zara, with its perennial soundtrack of chart-topping fast beats? “Appropriate fast-tempo music helps turn over crowds in a fast-food environment,” says Beckerman. “It’s a similar story at the fast-fashion end of the high street.” So if you want lots of people making quick decisions and not lingering for too long, upbeat is best.

Nessim Molder, a composer for retail websites, created a “high-energy digital electronica score, suitable for a young, athletic market” for a Reebok-Emporio Armani collaboration. His music for MaxMara, however, was “modern, minimal neo classical for elegance and understated luxury. Music is a vital tool in creating the right atmosphere for brands.”

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer psychologist at University College London, agrees. “Loud, fast music makes consumers walk very fast and puts them in a happy place where they become less critical and less concerned about cost. You see this a lot on the high street. You walk into Topshop and it sounds like a nightclub.” Which, of course, has the added benefit of defining the core audience, making the store truly feel like ‘their’ space.

Going live

If retailers are just beginning to harness the power of music, it’s a device designers have long since deployed on the catwalks. Vivienne Westwood once said the music “is more important than the clothes... if the music isn’t right, then people aren’t in the right mood”. Designer Henry Holland agrees that “music creates the atmosphere of the show”. Sometimes brands choose a literal soundtrack – think back to Christopher Kane’s a/w 2009 show, when he sent models down the catwalk in animal prints and gorilla dresses to the tune of I Wanna Be Like You from The Jungle Book, while others showcase up and coming artists in a bid to set trends rather than follow them.

More recently, designers have extended the musical experience with live performers. At London Fashion Week a/w 2016, model Edie Campbell walked the Burberry catwalk to a live acoustic performance by Jake Bugg. The musician’s rockabilly style was the perfect foil to the retro vibe of the collection – all mini dresses and Seventies elongated collars.

In fact, Burberry is an undoubted innovator when it comes to harnessing the power of music in retail. Chief executive and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey has long exploited the link between fashion and music. In 2010, the company launched Burberry Acoustic on its website to showcase exciting new artists, who often sport the brand’s iconic trenches. Last year, it also became the first label with a channel on Apple Music, where you can stream live performances by Burberry’s curated selection of British artists. But it’s not the only luxury designer to get on board with sound. For its 40th anniversary back in 2011, Mulberry held a series of catwalk shows and events, teaming up with the likes of Hot Chip, Ellie Goulding and Lana Del Rey. The collaboration with the Born To Die singer led to the creation of the Del Rey bag later that year.

Live music doesn’t just energise and set the context of fashion shows; DJs are frequently being used in stores too from Burberry to Diesel to engage customers and subsequently boost sales. “If you play music, you may influence people’s shopping behaviour,” says Beckerman. “But if there’s a DJ on site, you have an event. As well as audio, you now have a visual. The current drive in retail is creating multi-sensory experiences and connecting with popular culture and sentiment.”

In other words, take sound out of the equation and brands may run the risk of seeming out of touch with their consumers. So, if you find yourself absent-mindedly humming away while clutching armfuls of clothes when you only popped in for a T-shirt, you know why. As Gloria Estefan famously said, the rhythm is gonna get you.

In the mood for spending

From flattering lighting to citrus scents, all our senses influence what we buy...


The time consumers spend in a retail space is known as ‘dwell time’. “Typically, the first 12ft is the part where brands work hardest to introduce newness to entice customers further in, which is why the latest collections will always be at the front of any shop,” says retail consultant Karl McKeever.


High-end boutiques use sophisticated colour palettes and luxury materials, such as “polished metals, burnished golds, copper and brushed finishes – these suggest exclusivity,” explains McKeever. Sculpture and murals also indicate a more cultured brand.


Lightbulb colour varies from store to store – for a reason. “Prada uses a yellow-infused light, which is flattering to skintones,” explains McKeever. “YSL’s lighting, however, is crisp white to reinforce the luxury black-and-white marble finish of its stores. In many designer shops, the lighting in fitting rooms will switch from day to night for trying on evening wear.”


A 2005 study at Rutgers University in New Jersey found that non-impulsive shoppers spent more when a pleasant citrus smell pervaded a store. “Designer brands like Burberry and Prada are experimenting with aromatics in store,” says McKeever. “It’s important to choose the right scent – it shouldn’t be so strong that it repels customers.”

Purse, £69, Ted Baker