Should sound be part of the e-commerce experience?

Aug 29, 2014

Researchers at Goldsmiths University, London, have produced research that enabled eBay U.K. to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary with a "piece of music that uses sounds scientifically proven to help people make better shopping decisions," according to the Daily Telegraph.

Techtimes explained that, "Approximately 2000 participants browsed through an online store that featured a blender, wine, a board game, trainers and a barbecue. Researchers measured their perceptions of value, quality and emotional responses as the participants listened to different sounds."

[Image: Sound of Shopping]

The research guiding the track, entitled "Sound of Shopping," focused on background sounds commonly found in everyday life. EBay said the research discovered which sounds "have been proven to make shoppers think more rationally about what they are buying, reduce bad purchasing choices and help shoppers spot a bargain."

Among those listed as "good sounds" that helped people shop better were:

Pop music: Makes people feel good without getting "suckered" into bad deals. Less than a third (30.1 percent) made a bad purchasing decision while listening to pop music.

Football (soccer) commentary: Shoppers scored an average of four out of five for rational decision-making when listening to football commentary.

Air conditioner: A sound not associated with quality or luxury, that helps people judge value better.

Birds singing or lawnmowers: The sounds you hear sitting outdoors while shopping online make you more likely to buy outdoor products. People hearing birds singing were found to be 2.4 percent more likely to buy a barbecue than normal.

On the negative side, according to the research, "bad sounds" for shopping included:

Classical music: Makes people overate a product’s quality by 5 percent.

Restaurant buzz: Another sound associated with quality that encourages people to pay more than they otherwise might.

Baby crying/traffic: Puts shoppers in a bad mood, skewing how they assess value and quality.

Patrick Fagan, consumer behavior expert at Goldsmiths University, observed in a statement, "Any wine store owner will tell you that playing French music increases sales of French wine, but there is almost no research looking at this phenomenon online."

What insights does the eBay U.K. study offer around sounds and shopping? Should sound be a much larger component of online shopping?

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11 Comments on "Should sound be part of the e-commerce experience?"

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Chris Petersen, PhD.

In a word, the most logical use of sound is: Context.

A great example from the article was birds singing or lawnmowers: “The sounds you hear sitting outdoors while shopping online make you more likely to buy outdoor products.”

Why wonder or guess when you can so rapidly test on the web? With A/B testing on the web it is possible to test the impact of variables on both shopping behavior—and more importantly, in the shopping cart.

Alan Lipson
Alan Lipson
2 years 1 month ago

This study is interesting and provides some insights as to how different sounds influence shopping behaviors.

However, unlike the brick-and-mortar experience, where I have to listen to the sounds coming over the sound system in the store, I have my sound turned off on my PC/Laptop/Tablet. The only time I turn sound on is when there is content that I have specifically selected that I want to listen to.

So, until there is a way for retailers to force me to listen to their “shopping soundtrack” online, I’ll do my shopping in peace and quiet.

Jason Goldberg

Some shopping sites already do include audio. Nike, Barnes & Noble and others have been experimenting with it since the late 1990s. Some e-commerce platforms even have built in support for it. I’m not a fan of the practice unless it’s an opt-in experience.

The problem is that while a physical store visit is in an environment completely controlled by the retailer, shopping online is not. The user may well be at work in a cube farm looking for something for her family on her lunch break, at a coffee shop with background music blaring, in front of a TV watching her favorite show, etc., all of which make e-commerce music an unwanted interruption.

The usability of background music web experiences is poor. In many browsers with multiple tabs open, it can be difficult to tell which tab is playing music. What happens when you’re on multiple sites in different tabs, each with their own soundtrack?

Giving shoppers that want an immersive experience the option to turn on a soundtrack is fine. Playing it by default is usually a bad idea.

Carol Spieckerman

I often have playlists going in the background when I’m online (from YouTube, etc.) and nothing annoys me more than uninvited audio snippets that layer over what I’m listening to. I’ll abandon a site for that reason alone. Any e-commerce entity considering adding sound to its shopping experience might want to take this into consideration (surely I’m not the only one).

David Livingston
2 years 1 month ago

I think most people just have their devices muted so as not to disturb others and not to interfere with whatever else they are listening to. If I knew I had to take extra steps to mute an online site, that is a negative and subconsciously would tell me to stay away. Sounds on a website are like an invisible fence to a dog.

Adrian Weidmann

As one of our senses, sound (and smell) are not used effectively by brick-and-mortar retail despite their proven influence on shopping behavior and the overall shopper experience. Using sound to further the online shopping experience is a brilliant idea and will prove quite successful for those brands that leverage its effects. Any opportunity you have to enhance the shopping experience using the human senses is invaluable.

Aroma and smell is one of our most powerful senses in terms of association and memory, it cannot be replicated in an online experience, yet brick-and-mortar retailers have not leveraged this medium enough. Simply playing typical muzak as background music is lazy and doesn’t leverage the science and common sense for enhancing the in-store shopping experience. Properly combining sound and smell could be invaluable to the brand and shopping experience—as well as the bottom line.

Doug Garnett

It should not. Partly, consumers control sound and there is already incredible controversy about sounds from websites which are automatic.

In my case, if a website plays sound I immediately close that window and avoid the website unless it’s an absolute need.

Also, it’s worth noting that this research put consumers in such an arbitrarily defined environment that it’s unlikely to extend to their shopping experience.

Online retailers should be wary of shallow conclusions like these.

Naomi K. Shapiro
Naomi K. Shapiro
2 years 1 month ago

I feel really qualified to answer this question because I have…ears. And, I shop. No really, this is a normal evolution of using the senses to sell to, but hasn’t it been around for a long time? Elevator music, shopping music, sports event music; colors, scents, you name it. So it’s not so new, but it’s interesting. I guess this is specific to online shopping, so I would say, fine, as long as it’s not intrusive the way many ads online are these days.

Larry Negrich

Retailers could give the online user the option of playing background sound from their device. However, unexpected sound on a site is a negative customer experience. Many shoppers will not appreciate the sound as they are trying to sneak in a quick purchase at work

Ralph Jacobson

Sounds? ABSOLUTELY! SmelliVision?! FOR SURE! And, the ultimate: software that generates a sense of taste! Yes. That will indeed be the shopping Holy Grail.

Kenneth Leung

For online, sound is another medium that attracts shoppers like the store. Music, or videos all contribute to the overall shopping experience. However, given the number of people who shop during work, probably need to balance the sound effect with people who would appreciate shopping in silence while their coworkers aren’t looking πŸ™‚


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