Next Time You Go Shopping, Consider the Secret Way Retailers Get You to Spend Money


If you spend enough time in an Ann Taylor, you'll notice that they only play female musicians. One store manager reported, in an interview with Marie Clare, a few male singers, but noted, "When male, they must be singing about love or getting dumped."

Rischel Granquist knows why: She designed the brand's music strategy according to its demographic — middle-aged women shopping for conservative clothing. When those women hear other women singing, or non-threatening men wailing about heartbreak, they feel more comfortable. As a result, according to a 1988 study, they spend way more money.

Image credit: Ann Taylor

When you first walk into a store, you're immediately targeted by a brand's specific music strategy.

"The key is asking the right questions: What do we want the music to do — evoke an emotional response? Transport the customer to a different place? How do you want to fill the space?" Granquist told Marie Claire about her work with Burberry. But the aesthetic decisions are intuitive. What's a bit stranger is the psychology behind how every store you visit is using music to influence your decisions.

Image Credit: thinkretail

Brands not only take customers' musical tastes into consideration, but also want to control the amount of time people spend shopping in their stores through music. Music volume is a key psychological factor. According to recent studies, if music is played loudly, customers are likely to spend less time shopping. In a teen clothing store like Hot Topic, for instance, this tactic can be used to the retailer's advantage, as it lures young shoppers in and keeps their parents out. This makes the store more attractive to youth and also increases the chance that they will be more reckless in spending than they would if they were supervised.

Similarly, former Madewell employee Jordana Sapiurka told PolicyMic that the store's upbeat, alternative music was used to create a bond between customers and clerks. "Shoppers asked us what we were playing because they felt hip listening to it," she said. "Then they wanted to buy our clothes to feel even more hip." Music, as ever, was a social and actual currency.

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

In addition to driving parents away and sending overstimulated teens into spending mode, music volume also has been shown to affect the habits of impulse shoppers. According to Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman, loud music leads to "a momentary loss of self-control, thus enhancing the likelihood of impulse purchase." Music marketers know this well — they even have a name for it: "disrupt-then-reframe."

Marketers and management uses this physiological tactic to send customers into sensory overload. Think of a dark Abercrombie & Fitch store, where the beat of a house track thumps in your ears while your nostrils are overloaded with chain's sharp, distinctive musk (which bypasses your conscious mind to encourage impulsive decisions). Meanwhile, whether you like it or not, there's a ripped shirtless guy eyeing you. The customer feels so much discomfort that right when he or she feels the impulse to leave, the store finds a way to offer a reliable path through the chaos. In this case, the answer is: "Buy this Abercrombie polo shirt or denim skirt and RUN!"

Studies have shown that impulse buyers are likely to spend even more on an impulse buy when there's music egging them on, presumably because they reinforce the decision to purchase with the energy and emotion of the music.

But the people most affected by these (often intense) psychological tactics are store clerks. Mary Katherine Malone has been working at a university bookstore for two years and describes hearing the same music over and over as "living hell."

"I have to listen to Justin Bieber every day," said Malone. "I know the lyrics to songs that I never wanted to know. The fact that I know the lyrics to the most recent Pink song is sad."

There's often that feeling when you go shopping that a store knows you too well. You see the clothes you like, you hear the music you love and you see people like you behind the counter (even if they hate the music). But when you're out shopping and feel the impulse to open your wallet, take a moment to think about the volume of the music, the smells in the air and the carefully-handpicked musician who is whispering in your ear.