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Are You as Sick of Loud Music in Stores as I Am?

Retailers hoping to crank up holiday sales are also turning up the volume to unbearable levels. Here's how to cope.

By Caroline Mayer

It won’t be long before stores roll out their post-Christmas supersales. Personally, I plan to do my shopping online, not just for convenience, but also because it’s quieter at home.

My ears have become increasingly sensitive to loud noise and thumping beats (yours, too?) just as many stores and malls have been amping up their sound systems.

As a result, I’ve found myself turning around and walking out even before I’ve had a chance to look at their merchandise.

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My Recent Shopping Experience

That just happened on a trip to an outlet mall when I was hoping to find new winter duds. I spotted some colorful sweaters in an Ann Taylor store and stepped in to try them on, but never made it to the fitting room. The music was so painfully loud and harsh that I walked out. It was a similar story in the next two stores.

I finally found noise relief at what was clearly a more age-appropriate store for me: the women’s retailer Chico’s. Soft music was playing in the background, so I stayed, tried on many items and eventually purchased a sweater (even though I preferred the style and colors at Ann Taylor).

Why Some Stores Opt for Loud Music

I recently related my experience to Paco Underhill, a shopping anthropologist who wrote What Women Want, as I sought to understand why stores insist on playing such loud — and, to my ears, sometimes offensive — music.

First, Underhill asked me my age. “Over 60,” I replied.

Then came his frank reply: “Ann Taylor’s target audience is 25 to 40 and you are not considered a typical Ann Taylor customer, so just accept it.” I needed to shop accordingly, said Underhill, who happens to be 61.

Retailers, Underhill explained, are increasingly relying on music (plus lighting and scents) to make shopping more sensory, or “experiential” as industry experts like to say. That’s partly to differentiate the in-store experience from online shopping.

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Music as a Retail Differentiator

More and more, stores are also using music to distinguish themselves.

It’s why, when I visited Tysons Corner Center Mall in northern Virginia the week before Christmas, the trendy clothing retailer for young women and teens, Forever 21, played the loudest music: “Empathy” by Crystal Castles, a Canadian electronic performer. By contrast, the women’s retailer J Jill (its tagline: "Easy. Ageless. Cool.") played one of the softest: “This Christmas” by Lady Antebellum, the country pop group.

Underhill told me that studies have shown shoppers spend more when they hear background music and, more important, tend to stay longer and buy more if the music is slower-paced.


The Problem With Muzak

Soon after this research came out, music services began constructing playlists for stores. But much of what they piped in “was as bland as you can get,” said Joseph Pine, author of The Experience Economy. Remember the days of bland Muzak? “Its basic purpose was to hide any unwelcome noises and not make stores so silent you could hear your own breath,” Pine said.

Today, music has moved from the background to the foreground, an integral part of a retailer’s identity, aimed to match the type of consumers the store hopes to attract. The music not only sets the mood, it gets into your consciousness.

A store like Abercombie & Fitch is “setting off all sorts of vibes, including ‘If you’re below 28, you don’t belong here,’” Pine said. “You’re taking away from the sales person’s time and your mere presence may impinge on the experience of our target customer.”

The irony of the loud, pulsating music is that the older shopper is often the one with the wallet to make the biggest purchases, Underhill said. (Incidentally, Underhill told me that he increasingly picks the places he wants to shop based on their noise level.)

4 Ways to Cope

So what’s an older shopper to do? Here are four suggestions:

1. Complain to the store if you really want to stay and shop. That’s what Doug Fleener, president of the Lexington, Mass., retail consulting firm Dynamic Experiences Group, suggests. “If the music is too loud, I have no problem asking the staff to turn it down,” Fleener said. “Hopefully, they will want to keep customers happy and make a sale.”  You could also post a complaint on the retailer's Facebook page or tweet your displeasure on Twitter. Social media comments often get a company's attention these days.

2. If you like a store’s wares but not its decibel levels, shop at the retailer’s online version. And if you find its website still has annoying background music, which could well happen, just hit your computer’s mute key.

3. Carry an iPod or another MP3 player when you shop. “You can bring along your own soundtrack, rather than leave the choice up to the companies,” Pine said. “Tons of young people walk around with earbuds in their ears — why shouldn’t you?”

4. Make a quiet statement by boycotting the store. “Pick up your feet and wallet and spend your money somewhere else,” Underhill said. If enough potential customers do this, the retailer just might face the music and turn it down.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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