Why retailers need to think about the sound of shopping as part of the connected consumer journey

Op-ed

Most of us have become so accustomed to shopping online that we’d be forgiven for not fully remembering the in-store experience – especially the sounds that we are exposed to whether knowingly or not. If you were to consciously listen and count the different audio cues that are fed to us as we peruse the aisles and racks, you’d be amazed at how many there are. From the strategically chosen (often licenced) music playing over the speakers, to the in-store announcement voices, the sounds of the scanner to the sonic cues at check-out. In most cases, especially with big brands, these have been picked specifically to build the experience and generate emotion, whilst routing back to the brand.

But when physical stores around the world closed during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and retail moved online, the absence of sound in retail was felt. Most retailers have no audible or consistent audible experience online at all. The experience is mute, impersonal and lacks the link to a pleasant real-life retail experience.

When living during a time of heightened stress, anxiety and uncertainty, we naturally look to those we know and trust to provide assurance and comfort. Brands have a responsibility to customers to make them feel engaged and wanted – and music can be that familiar sound and studies have proven it can make people feel calmer, positive and engaged. Most of us are aware of the subliminal influence of the music chosen to play in-store; usually calm, slow, or a Top 40 playlist on repeat that distracts us from how much time we’ve spent shopping. A study from the 90s found French wine outsold German wine when French music was played, whereas German wine outsold French wine when German music was played. The unconscious power of music is remarkable.

The in-store shopping experience is almost completely controllable and manufactured, giving brands greater influence over consumer’s senses and, subsequently, their spending. Whether trying to increase the number of customer interactions you have, increase repeat purchases or attract new customers, sonic branding in the physical servicescape is the intangible hook that reels in consumers.

READ MORE: H&M launches H&M Music as it seeks to support independent artists

But why isn’t the same theory applied online?

Today, online stores are easily changeable, and because of this, many retailers have been exploring new techniques with visuals to make their brand image seem more attractive. But in reality, the interchangeability of the e-commerce world is well-known and is now just another short-term design element which doesn’t promote recall in the same way that audio does.

We of course still want people to linger for longer and ultimately shop more online, but visuals alone can no longer cut it. Having a cohesive sound across multiple platforms reinforces the attitude that consumers have towards a brand because it shows the commitment that the brand has for the image.

Take for instance Burberry; an iconic British fashion brand that, for the last two decades, has ensured music permeates everything the brand is doing, from the virtual to the physical. This is in large part due to chief creative officer Christopher Bailey’s mission to intertwine both music and fashion. Many people might be surprised to know that Burberry has a full-time music team, tasked with everything from using music from the runway in its stores to nurturing Burberry Acoustics, its music platform devoted to helping emerging British artists. By ensuring its music strategy is portrayed on the runway, in advertising campaigns, and in-store Burberry are using music to connect the dots between the brand experience across all touchpoints.

READ MORE: Spotify to test 13% price rise

So how can this be translated to the online-dominated environment we find ourselves in?

For an online fashion retailer, like Pretty Little Thing or ASOS, they can add upbeat, positive music that energises and transports people into a scenario they can envisage themselves in. Perhaps a curated playlist of artists on the music festival circuit (if they ever come back!) while customers are shopping for outfits. It’s important not to underrate the power and influence of streaming platforms today. Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube are providing even more opportunities to extend customer engagement in creative ways. Chiquita, the global banana distributor, for example, took its iconic blue sticker to a whole new level this year by adding a unique code for consumers to scan giving them instant access to five different curated Spotify playlists. The playlists were different genres and moods; ‘Tropical Vibes’, ‘Smile Workout’, ‘Feeling Happy’, and even ‘Cook and Dance’ – something for every occasion. They also did new remixes of the iconic jingle, which we helped them with.

And then there’s podcasts, booming in popularity. Harrods – known for its luxury status – has a podcast dedicated to this exact theme, interviewing creatives in the industry and “dissect[ing] the latest high-end innovations and explor[ing] the question: what is luxury?”. Other fashion brands could mimic this, and offer insights into the industry by interviewing designers, models, and creatives to talk about new collections and trends. Initiatives like this go a long way in bringing people closer to the brand and building loyalty.

Stepping back from playlists and podcasts, retailers can unlock the power of sound in so many other simple ways using technology infrastructures that already exist and consumers are used to. Don’t underestimate the power of a simple sound notification to confirm a purchase has gone through and to thank them for their service – surprise and delight moments go a long way in retail, and a sonic cue can tie this whole experience together. These audio triggers are simple and functional, but still rooted in the emotional engagement between retailer and customer.

Music and retail have a long standing and important relationship in facilitating the customer journey – but as a tool, it is still widely underutilised. Those brands that harness the power of sound as a strategic tool for them to improve communication with and the experience of customers will have the competitive edge in today’s marketplace.

Charles Gadsdon, global director of growth at MassiveMusic, international creative music agency

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