Immersive Audio Transforms the Retail Experience at the Speed of Sound
It’s been long established that music has the power to stir emotion and influence consumer behavior. In 1973, business professor Philip Kotler first addressed the science of sound in retail when he coined the term “atmospherics” for the practice of designing store environments to project a specific image and induce certain behaviors. In an article for the Journal of Retailing, he wrote “In some cases, the place, more specifically the atmosphere of the place, is more influential than the product itself in the purchase decision. In some cases, the atmosphere is the primary product.”
A few years later, in 1982, researcher Robert Milliman also found that “the tempo of instrumental background music can significantly influence both the pace of in-store traffic flow and the daily gross sales volume purchased by customers.”
Despite this, the creative and strategic application of sound in retail environments often remains an afterthought. Sure, Starbucks can make music central to the retail experience with a playlist of thousands of songs, but most retailers confine music to a constant and repetitious loop of a limited number of songs … aggravating both staff and regular customers.
In contrast, some retailers choose silence, but in this case, silence is not golden. According to Dr. Vicky Williamson, an authority on the psychology of music: “Music positively influences consumer mood/emotional states through psycho-physiological reactions and autobiographical memory associations. Silence, by comparison, can be intrusive, as it throws unwelcome attention on the customer’s behavior.” When there's no background noise, shoppers often feel anxious, as if all the focus is on them, which causes them to leave the store more abruptly and without a purchase.
And for those retailers that do embrace in-store music, they often get it wrong with sound systems that are frequently mediocre, at best. Poorly designed audio can break a “sound strategy” with a negative effect. Additionally, standard sound systems playing throughout a store results in everyone experiencing the exact same sounds at the same time — and this represents a missed opportunity.
Retailers have the power to move beyond music and create powerful sonic experiences thanks to new immersive audio technologies. The creative application of sound can energize shoppers, calm frazzled employees, and even attract new customers.
The secret is in the development and deployment of unique soundscapes that are delivered over a multichannel audio system, creating sound that fully envelops shoppers. With this type of immersive audio, retailers can tailor experiences to specific areas within the store. For example, if you’re an outdoor clothing retailer, you might play calming ocean sounds in the watersports section, or natural ambient sounds and birdsongs in the hiking boot section. Trying on a new pair of sneakers? Sound can transport you right to the center of a basketball court, mid-game. And by having different soundscapes in the back of the house, retailers can create a sense of calm that can help team members focus, re-energize or simply relax.
To make this work, however, audio design cannot be an afterthought. Instead, it’s important to either uplevel sound design as part of the initial store design process or consider how to retrofit an existing buildout. Retailers place significant emphasis on designing planograms, but what about a “audio planogram” that’s designed for delight, memory recall, and propensity to purchase?
With speakers that can seamlessly be integrated into store design, a retail location can retain a clean look and feel, but also have powerful technology at the ready to transport shoppers via audio to create new retail experiences that attract, keep and motivate shoppers.
So how can a retailer get started with immersive audio? As with any new initiative, do some research, ask questions, and consult professionals. For example, sustainable fashion brand PANGAIA recently worked with Random Studios, an interactive brand and experience design agency, to create a sensory forest experience housed in a nature capsule at The Grove in Los Angeles. The retail pop-up was composed with Spatial audio software, creating sonic landscapes that teased out the different sounds of a forest based on in-depth research into the area’s local species and weather.
As with all new initiatives, it’s important to give yourself time to experiment and measure results. The end result will be certain to delight shoppers and staff alike, while positively transforming the shopping experience and, ultimately, the bottom line.
Melissa Price is vice president of global business development at Spatial, pioneering design with audio at the forefront.
Related story: The Power of Audio: Retailers Make Some Noise to Attract Consumers
Melissa Price is a recognized business leader with over 20 years of experience in financial management, organizational development, multi-site operations and facilities management with a proven track record of fostering innovation and organizational growth while driving company culture and vision.
Today, Melissa serves as the VP of Global Business Development at Spatial, pioneering design with audio at the forefront. Before Spatial, Melissa served as President of AIREA Detroit’s premier Haworth Dealership, creating connections through furniture. Melissa was also named Director of Strategy – Advisor for Leon Speakers in Ann Arbor, serving as an advisor to the Board and Executive team on strategic account development with clients such as Ford, Apple and Shinola.
From 2013 to 2018 Melissa was CEO and cofounder of POPHouse (formerly dPOP) a commercial interior design firm in Detroit, where she drove impressive growth with a team who created award winning spaces for culture driven clients.