Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?
Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Third Eyesight blog.
Over the last few years, I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the noise in public and commercial spaces. It may be that my sensitivity to this has increased with age, but it is a fact that noise levels have also increased dramatically in every urban public space around us. It has reached a point where I now feel that people involved in the architecture and design are either addicted to noise or, at the very least, completely immune to it.
Sound levels in busy restaurants and shopping malls can be as high as 70-110 decibels, which is the equivalent of a busy construction site. Sportswear stores play loud and fast-paced music throughout the day. Are they trying to make you believe that you are in a nightclub at 11 a.m.? Internal equipment such as air-conditioning and fans add to noise levels. Restaurants and cafes are worse: noise sources include the kitchen, customers using the crockery and cutlery, chairs moving as people sit or leave, apart from the conversations going on.
Unfortunately, it is also a vicious upward spiral of sound. Loudness feeds loudness. We all raise our voices when we are competing with the surrounding sounds, and only end up adding to the noise further.
And not only are the customers uncomfortable, high noise levels actually interfere with the staff’s physical and mental stress. What’s more, if conversations are not possible at a normal volume and tone, we have to put in more effort into hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. There comes a point when we just give up. Can you imagine what impact that has on a sale?
Of course, just making every space a quiet "dead" space is not the answer. Sound and silence affect us positively as well as negatively. And in some cases (e.g.,. a night club, or discount store), sounds need to be louder to ensure that the place "feels" lively, even when it is not full to capacity. In some places, our enjoyment is enhanced by noise.
Disney offers an inspiring example of how sound can be used. Over the years they have developed systems combining sophisticated software and hardware in their amusement parks, such that you can walk through the whole park without the decibel-level changing too much. The music sets the appropriate mood for each specific zone. What’s more, the transitions are smooth as you move between zones.
Not everyone needs the sophistication of a Disney amusement park, but I believe it is worthwhile for most retailers to think about how sound is affecting people in their stores. I would urge you, at the very least, to look at how it impacts conversations between customers, and between the customer and members of the serving staff, because that will definitely impact sales.
A leading cafe chain in India, Café Coffee Day, proclaims: "A lot can happen over coffee." Yes, it can; but not if you make conversation impossible.
Discussion Question: Do you believe there is a noise problem at retail? If so, what steps should retailers take to determine and institute the proper sound level?