Sound foundations

Published:  26 February, 2014

Music plays a key role in setting the mood for Christmas shopping – but there’s more to it than Slade or Bing Crosby’s greatest hits 

As the peak of the retail calendar, Christmas brings with it bustling malls, busy shops and hordes of people laden with bulky carrier bags, and while that spells delight for any shopping centre landlord, manager and tenant, it often spells dread for the shopper in equal measure.

In the run up to Christmas, shopping and stress often go hand in hand so providing as pleasant an experience as possible will prove a valuable exercise. And music – linked strongly with brain function and emotions - is a key part in getting that experience right.

Every business makes sound every day, yet most of it is undesigned, accidental and unconscious and often undermines customer experience and the brand. The Sound Agency aims to remedy that by helping its clients to unleash the beneficial power of designed sound to enhance their brand, increase sales, optimise customer experience and satisfaction, and to improve employee experience and productivity.

According to its website, ‘the right sound is capable of changing people’s purchasing behaviour, their brand affinity and engagement, their positive or negative feelings about a brand experience, and their openness and willingness to interact.’

When The Sound Agency takes on a new client, they audit the space, taking 30-40 readings including the acoustics, mall noise - things like squeaks, banging doors, and air conditioning - and the quality of the sound system, before designing a new, better soundscape that avoids “mall mush”.

“Music affects us on physical, physiological, cognitive and behavioural level, and we want to create pleasant background sounds that increase dwell time,” says The Sound Agency chairman, Julian Treasure. “If music is fast paced, people tend to speed up, get their shopping done quicker and leave sooner. And that means less money.

“Instead you want to make people feel relaxed, cognitively clear and happy but too often it’s done badly and leaves shoppers stressed, mentally confused and feeling overwhelmed.”

Repetition and lack of imagination are the main pitfalls. The Royal National Institute for the Deaf - the RNID - estimates that some stores play Jingle Bells 300 times over the Christmas period, and according to, many shops will play the same album 20 times a week or more.

“It’s bad at every time of year,” says Treasure. “When any song that’s very recognisable is played repeatedly, it’s a nightmare for shoppers and shop workers alike.”

When it comes to avoiding repetition, he advises people to programme three times as much music as needed, so if a centre’s open for nine hours a day, have enough songs to fill 72 hours, or three days. And several different playlists is advisable. The Sound Agency works with a major department store that has six different Christmas playlists including classical, jazz, choral, kids and one with all the well-known Christmas songs.  

It is also possible for shopping centres to sound Christmassy without using the popular festive songs. The Sound Agency worked with a shopping centre in Germany and generated a soundscape of ambient sound that was meant to be in the background, like aural wallpaper, and designed to evoke feelings. There were carols and subtle sounds associated with Christmas.  

For centre managers that insist on music, Treasure advises using imagination: “There are thousands of Christmas songs beyond the usual suspects,” he says. “Don’t just play the same old chestnuts. Ask yourself: how should the brand sound? How should it be expressed? How should it filter through? What’s appropriate?”

And he warns: “Shopping malls are huge generic spaces so it’s dangerous to adopt a strong musical character.” 

Mindful that centre managers and their teams aren’t rich on time, Centre Radio manages music playlists and announcements, so that whatever mood the client wants to create, or message they want to communicate, it is available at the click of a button. 

“Imagine what it would be like without music on the malls at Christmas time. It’s one of the key elements that creates a theme, but there’s only so many times you can listen to Mistletoe and Wine and other Christmas tracks,” says Centre Radio director, Daniel Graham. “Christmas is just like any other time of the year - you don’t want to bombard shoppers with songs that will irritate them.

“We all recognise bad music more quickly than good, so the secret to a good music profile is that it’s almost subconscious, but also something that can be enjoyed and engaged with.”

According to Graham, there is a science to it, and Centre Radio analyses a centre’s needs, dwell time, visitor demographic and things like shopper behaviour - how people move around a mall, for example - before coming up with suitable playlists.

“It has to be the right music, at the right time, for the right people, and one playlist just isn’t going to cut it,” he says. “Retailers have an individual demographic that allows them to pitch it perfectly but it can be more difficult for shopping centres which have a wide range of visitors.”

With that in mind, Graham recommends creating different playlists for different malls, taking account of each area’s retail mix and the type of shoppers each one is likely to attract. And it can be done using zoned PA systems to avoid clashing sounds.

“Ideally you want music that is universal but also reflects the environment of a certain mall; something that matches the mood and sentiment and caters to your audience,” Graham says. 

Once content has been perfected, knowing when best to turn Christmas music on and off is another key consideration, risking turning people away if turned on too soon or too late. Many centres start playing Christmas songs after their light switch ons in mid-November, and Graham advises blending Christmas music into existing playlists bit by bit from then on until there is only Christmas content at peak trading periods.  

“No one turns on 100 per cent Christmas music from day one,” he says. “You don’t want to bombard people, or you’ll risk driving them mad.”

And it’s not just music that makes up a centre’s audio profile. Sound systems can also be used for messaging, especially at Christmas to promote activities and events and to announce late trading hours. 

When it comes to spoken messages, Graham and the Centre Radio team hire professionals, ensuring that the recorded voices aren’t monotonous in tone, and create maximum engagement without causing annoyance. 

But he warns: “Any messaging you put out shouldn’t be perceived as a sales pitch. Consumers are a lot more savvy now and you can’t sell to them like you used to. Be careful to only put out messages they will find useful - make them aware of gift wrapping or other customer services, remind them of gift card sales, and promote deals but only if you think it will add to the shopping experience.”

Whether it be music or messages, there can be no doubt that managed sound is beneficial to a shopping environment, harnessing the power of emotion to increase customer satisfaction and people’s propensity to spend.

“Sound is something shopping centre landlords and managers are taking seriously,” concludes Treasure. “When they’re creating spaces they are creating an experience, and an experience isn’t just about appearance. They’ve got to appeal to five senses, not just one.”


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