Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

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Nov 30, 2011
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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?

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13 Comments on "Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Excellent point and one we dealt with earlier this fall. It is a fine line to adding energy to a space and trying to make an ordinary store into a busy nightclub. While it may work for teen stores, I would believe older shoppers feel more “out of it” as not only the amplification, but also what they are playing draws attention to itself — and away from the merch.

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
9 years 5 months ago

Thank you for bringing this up! Noise pollution is becoming a big problem, particularly in restaurants. I find loud music distracting and very annoying. You are not creating “ambiance,” you are blasting unwelcome noise into your customers’ ears; it makes me want to pack, go and not come back. Less is more. More music, louder music is not a solution, it’s a problem.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Sssshhhhhh….

Yes, retail is, in many cases, way too loud.

Even where there is sound it often doesn’t enhance the shopping experience.

I don’t know about you, but the sound of Journey blasting through a supermarket doesn’t inspire me to buy much — except maybe earplugs and aspirin.

I mean, it’s 2011! Why am I still hearing Journey?

Back to the point. I live in a community filled with restaurants almost universally boasting trendy high ceilings. Put more than four people in any of them and it begins to sound like the rehearsal hall for a loud, atonal version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The noise pollution problem is especially vexing to Baby Boomers although they’ll lose their hearing in a few years anyway, so it will become less of an issue over time.

Seriously, many, many retailers could benefit from dropping the decibels — or at the very least developing a little better taste in the music they insist on broadcasting at air raid warning levels.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 5 months ago

There are noise problems all throughout retail today and there seems little sensitivity to the problems by retailers.

Loudness provides nothing except discomfort, except for the few people who prefer noise such as provided by Wagner’s decibel-challenging music; it is so loud, one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.

The first retailer who builds a store or restaurant where proper (and lower) sound levels prevail, and then promotes that ambiance, will be supported by many consumers. So, as Archie Bunker would say, “Stifle it, retailers!”

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
9 years 5 months ago

Sound can be a shopper buying signal or it can be unpleasant and distracting. The key is for retailers to recognize the role of sound in their stores and make sure that it is consistent with their customer focus and positioning. Loud sound may be appropriate for an electronics store catering to young shoppers, but not for a sophisticated clothing store.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

High noise levels do cause stress, and whereas I have not noticed it too much in retail stores or malls, it’s definitely an issue in many restaurants where patrons came to talk to each other and visit, not to be entertained by the piped-in music. On the other hand, soft background music in restaurants, and rock music at an appropriate sound volume, can actually enhance retail sales if the music is properly targeted to the market that shops in the stores.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Some research indicates that sound is important for setting the mood in retail and that the type of sound can affect sales positively. I have not seen any studies about the decibels of the sound and it’s impact on shopping or the impact on people’s hearing. I do know that I avoid some stores or restaurants because of noise.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Retail managers who don’t think there’s a problem should try an honest survey of their customers. Of course, they may have already driven some of their best customers away. There are stores and restaurants I won’t visit for this very reason. Of course my biggest beef is with people using cell phones in restaurants. I think they should all be taken to Texas and executed.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Excessive sound can be exhausting, and I really don’t know how the staff in the food courts handle it. While music can convey energy and attitude, you have to wonder when “perky” crosses the line into “preoccupying”….

Gordon Arnold
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

This is simply one of the many reasons people are switching to clicks over bricks. Parking issues, out of stocks, lines, the time consumption and of course, personal safety issues, are others. These prohibitive concerns need to be cataloged and accurately tracked on a local level view for retailers to combat this visitor decline. When consumer specific areas of concern are identified and successfully addressed on a local basis, visits will increase without sacrificing margins.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Do I believe there is a noise problem at retail? Yes, anywhere there is an A&F. OK, more seriously, I agree that many stores have background “music” that is annoying or too loud (or both) — “equivalent of a busy construction site” sounds implausible — but that is presumably a marketing strategy designed to appeal to certain demographics … of which, it seems, I am not a member.

Dan Raftery
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

I can’t believe no one has mentioned ear buds yet. If the ambient sound is too loud, it will interfere with my own personal Journey song. Don’t think fewer ear buds are in the future.

The way a room (a store or a restaurant is a large room) behaves acoustically depends on many things, some of which change over time. All of this can be managed, but it is a job for acoustic experts.

All of the attention is given to the visual impact, and all too often, there is no consideration to the audio environment.

Matt Schmitt
Guest
9 years 5 months ago

Restaurants seem to draw the most criticism in this area. The nature of the venues result in large amounts of traffic for short periods of time. Stores where music and other media are utilized tend to be viewed more favorably, especially when traffic levels and store layout are such that the absence of some auditory stimulation is actually a turn off to many shoppers. Of course, even then, levels should be adjusted reasonably.

As for the stores’ physical design, I’d say consideration of acoustics does not get due attention in the planning phases.

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