Background music and noise levels influence food choices

How retailers can create a healthy shopping environment

Background music and noise – known as “retail atmospherics” – are ubiquitous in retail and with food and beverage brands. They can play a major role in customer experience and branding – from spending levels to brand perception. With competition from online food providers, physical stores are trying to compete on a more experiential level. But music can pose a risk: In 2016, British multinational retailer Marks & Spencer decided in 2016 to turn off music in their stores following customer complaints.

Existing research shows that volume levels in retail and restaurants are typically very variable. And these spaces are getting louder too. Volume levels are easily changeable, with management often at the controls. Now researchers have studied whether ambient music and noise levels affect retail selection – specifically healthy or unhealthy food choices.

This new research combined a pilot study, two field experiments, and five lab studies. It compared the effects of high, low, and zero levels of background music and noise. Across the experiments, low noise and music levels lead to higher sales of healthy food and increased relaxation. On the other hand, louder music and noise encouraged unhealthier food selections and increased heart-rates. These results were robust in supermarket shopping and cafes, and across a wide variety of musical genres.

We know already that loud noise changes taste perception, and therefore this may go some way to explaining this new research.Research like this is important to audio branding, in terms of customer and staff wellbeing, health, and brand perceptions. Retailers can go a long way in experiential design to encourage healthier choices.

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