The effects of ambient cues in retail environments

Research shows that within 17 milliseconds, we’ve already judged how attractive we find a product. But how much does your environment affect you, could playing the right ‘muzak’ encourage you to spend?

With online digital giant threats such as Amazon, the retail industry is in a state of continuous competition to gain customers’ attention in order to survive in today’s market. The research revealed that customers in a retail environment can make judgements on the attractiveness of products in just 17 milliseconds (Alexandre et al., 2012).

It is important for retailers to understand consumers’ shopping behaviour and their movements within the stores, and precisely how physical environment and atmospheric cues such as ambient lighting, scent, and background music within a retail store may affect consumers’ attitude towards products, their attention and product judgements, their walking speed within the store, as well as their spending.

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Mehrabian and Russell (1974) suggest that individuals react to places with two types of behaviour: approach and avoidance. Approach behaviours involve all positive behaviours of an individual directed at a particular place, such as the desire to stay, explore, and work, while avoidance behaviours include the opposite, i.e., a desire not to stay, explore, and work. In the context of the retail environment, consumers’ approach behaviours such as shopping enjoyment, the time they spent browsing, spending money, and exploring the store may all be affected by their perceptions of the environment (Donovan and Rossiter, 1982).

The concept of servicescape was developed by Booms and Bitner (1981) to highlight the influence of the physical environment in which a service process takes place. The musicscape framework developed by Oakes (2000) is an extension of the Servicescape model, which highlights music as one of the environmental dimensions influencing customers’ behaviours within a retail environment. Music is sometimes created as muzak that is background music composed and used for creating a more pleasing and comfortable environment for consumers in various service or retail contexts, in which music is considered as something to hear and not listen to.

Research on atmospheric cues in retail stores explored the effects of music on a wide range of perceptions and behaviours (e.g., purchase intention, actual purchase, actual and perceived shopping time and waiting time, store evaluations etc) through manipulating a range of structural characteristics of music such as volume, tempo, key, texture, arousal, familiarity, liking, complexity, and perceived mood.

…music played in a retail environment positively influenced shopping intention of the customers.

Findings of the research by Turley and Milliman (2000) on the presence and absence of music suggest that background music makes consumers feel better and hence, makes them spend more time and in turn spend more in the retail store. On the other hand, Mattila and Wirtz (2001) reveal how liked music played in a retail environment positively influenced shopping intention of the customers.

Musical preference can positively affect the amount of time and money retail shoppers spend in a supermarket (Herrington, 1996). A shorter perceived waiting time in retail environments such as supermarkets may result in increased customer satisfaction. Furthermore, it could affect customers’ purchase behaviour in terms of spending more actual time in the store which may result in a higher possibility for unplanned purchases. Also, consumers may find loud music in a supermarket annoying, which can result in decreased shopping time.

One of the most influential aspects of music in terms of its impact on retail sales is what has been referred to as ‘genre’ or ‘style’. Findings reveal that congruity or match between the connotations of the musical genre and a certain product may affect sales and perception of that product. Areni and Kim (1993) examine the effects of classical and top 40 music on consumers’ shopping behaviour in a wine store and found that classical music resulted in customers purchasing more expensive wines. This could be due to classical music being associated with sophistication and prestige, and hence, customers were subconsciously encouraged to buy more expensive brands. In this context, classical music was congruous as it was expected and had relevant upmarket associations.

Research on atmospheric cues in retail stores investigated the effects of the congruity of the country of origin of music and the product upon consumers’ product choice. North et al. (1999) played French and German music on alternate days alongside French and German wines in the alcoholic beverages section of a supermarket. They examined the effects of stereotypically French and German background music on supermarket customers’ selection of French and German wine and revealed that French music resulted in higher sales of French wine and German music resulted in selling more German wine.

This study indicated how music can subconsciously prime relevant knowledge and the choice of certain products if they match that knowledge. It demonstrates that music has the capability to activate knowledge structures associated with a specific country which may, in turn, result in the selection of products that are congruent with those knowledge structures.

…classical music led to assumptions that goods and service quality would be higher when compared to top 40 music.

Baker et al. (1992) investigate the effects ambient cues (lighting and music) on respondents’ pleasure, arousal, and purchase intentions and found that musical genre/lighting congruity increased willingness to buy through enhancing customer pleasure. Baker et al. (1994) use similar stimuli and report that classical music and soft lighting result in expectations of higher service and merchandise quality compared to pop music and bright lighting.

In this context, the ambient elements of classical music led to assumptions that goods and service quality would be higher when compared to top 40 music. Oakes et al. (2013) examine the role of background music within different retail zones of a department store informing consumers experiences and transforming perceptions of the retail environment and revealed how using background music that is congruous with other servicescape elements (e.g. light, air, colour, temperature) enhanced consumers’ perception of the retail environment attractiveness.

Milliman (1982) explored the effects of fast and slow tempo background music in retail environments and reported that using slow-tempo music increased shoppers’ purchase levels compared to fast-tempo music. This may be due to the fact that fast music increases the speed of walking tempo, while slow relaxing music makes the walking tempo slower (Franěk et al., 2014). The slower a consumer walks in a retail store, the more time they may spend in the store, increasing the possibility of purchase.

In summary, reviewing the literature dealing with the influence of background music in retail stores on consumers’ shopping behaviour suggests that music can affect customers’ evaluations of the retail environment, improve their shopping experience, as well as affecting the time duration and the amount consumers spend in the retail store.

Dr Morteza Abolhasani is a Senior Lecturer at The Open University.

This article was previously published on OpenLearn in October 2019 and can be viewed here.

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