Back to Retail, Part 3: As a Trapped Audience for Sound, Staff May Suffer


Environmental music can affect staff morale – for better or for worse.

The most affected audience for in-store music is your employee team. If the music is too repetitive, too loud, or too grating, they suffer. And, oh boy, don’t get them started about holiday music. Often, it is a very short playlist including many detested “smarmy” songs that repeats incessantly from October till December 24th. “Honestly that’s the worst,” said an employee from a chain drugstore, according to a client’s research. Her comments were echoed by many. Let’s agree that these are cruel and unusual working conditions.

One thing to note is that the customer-facing staff has strong opinions about whether the music in the store suits the brand’s and shoppers’ needs, because they get to hear the compliments and complaints first hand. 

Talking with employees can provide invaluable guidance. Notice how this Toronto department store sales associate fundamentally understands the brand and the customer.

“Seven years ago when I started, the music was a mix. It wasn’t bad, it was a little bit of everything: classic rock, R&B, dance mix music, nothing too annoying to me. It was a wide variety and it wasn’t too loud either. But as the years have progressed, it’s getting worse because they’re playing Top 40.

It’s very inappropriate for our clientele because we’re a luxury retailer. Especially, because it’s on all four floors. It might be OK for the contemporary and, maybe, even main floor but it’s absolutely not appropriate for the floor of people buying designer pieces well into the four digits.

“I get complaints every single day. Every day. Especially from the ones who are spending the money. They ask, ‘Why is this type of music being played?’ ‘Who are they targeting? A typical customer complaint is, ‘What is this garbage they’re playing?’ ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s too loud.”

“It’s too loud for the store. We are trying to have a conversation. It’s like I am in a nightclub.” 

I feel whoever’s choosing the music isn’t thinking about who the clients are. They may be choosing the music they like or what they think is trendy right now. The clients are an afterthought.”

“It’s on a loop. I hear the same song over and over. I even know some songs that I wish I didn’t because they play so often.” 

They play Christmas music in late October, even before Halloween. And the clients say, ‘Isn’t it a little early?’ Some of the carols may be religious. And a lot of our clients are Jewish, they don’t like it. It’s too early and, then, the people who enjoy the carols are not in the store yet.”

They think the retailer is trying to force it on them. Like, ‘You’ve got to buy Christmas products now!’ They’re not thinking of it for enjoyment, it’s just a marketing strategy to get people to buy presents early.”

“You don’t need all that crazy beat. Something more pleasant music could be played, something that’s not dominating the shopping experience. It should be putting you in a relaxing mood, not an annoyed, frustrated mood. Maybe if you’re in a Zara and Forever 21, it’s OK.”

“I’m open, I like all genres of music, I’m open-minded but there’s a time and a place …and a certain volume as well.”

“There are some very, very high value clients who do actually have the power to get them to turn down the music a little bit. But it still goes back up again.”

Salesperson in a Toronto department stores’

We’ve all read articles about how employee morale has a direct effect on the customer experience, and we know that customer experience affects sales (happy customers spend about 10% more), as well as loyalty and lifetime customer value. The in-store music experience can go far to lift the experience and seed the brand.

Even sonically branded moments as mentioned in Part 2, must be subtle and witty enough to make them the floor staff’s friends and not annoyances. An inappropriate auditory environment can sap energy, enthusiasm and the diplomacy it takes to handle customer needs.

And, as for the winter holiday period, here’s a tip for the considerate manager: if you currently refresh say 25% of your playlist every three months, consider refreshing it every three weeks between the end of October and the end of December!

Written by Colleen Fahey, US Managing Director