For the conspiratorial spirit that thought supermarkets played a particular music to influence us to buy certain products – that is, more expensive products – I can reveal that is not the case in Australia. Still.
But department stores could easily use tunes to change our shopping habits, according to the world’s leading subject matter expert, based at Curtin University in Perth.
Professor Adrian North, originally from the UK, has spent his life studying the psychology of music and how we interact with it in various spaces, including retail stores. His work has made him the world’s foremost expert on the subject and he is now the Dean of Learning and Teaching at Curtin’s Faculty of Health Sciences. His enthusiasm for talking about how music affects us is contagious.
A few months ago, I wrote about the unexpected pleasure of supermarket radio in Australia. My parents run the Friendly Grocer supermarket in the town of Robertson, NSW so I know a bit about it..
Coles is the only supermarket in Australia to have its own radio station – outsourced to Nova – and when I asked Lisa Ronson, Coles Marketing Director, if research showed certain tunes could influence people’s habits. purchase, she would not be attracted. “It’s more for Nova to have knowledge of trends, what people are listening to and what’s new,” she said at the time.
North says his research suggests that Coles’ use of harmless, upbeat pop music isn’t part of a vile plan to make us spend more. The supermarket giant’s playlist does not do the trick.
And after nearly a decade of living and working in Australia, he has yet to be called by Coles or Woolworths to consult on using music to increase sales – and, he notes, he would be the person most likely to be approached.
For a few days in a bustling college cafeteria in the late 1990s, North and his colleagues conducted an experiment where one day they played classical music (Beethoven, Bach – the “greatest hits” of classical), another day they played daily pop music and on day 3 they played what we would colloquially call “musak” or elevator music (sweeping strings and bland rhythms).
Obviously, the students enjoyed pop music the most, but classical music made the cafeteria and the students special, North says. “We added it all up and found that people were willing to spend the most when classical music was playing, about 20% more. “
Another study at the time found that French music led to higher sales of French wines than German wines in a supermarket, while German music led to the opposite effect. Responses to a questionnaire suggested that customers were unaware of the effect music had on their choices.
A 2021 study found that music played in an online store had a similar impact on online shopping behavior.
An article published last year by one of North’s doctoral students, Emma Flynn, also looked at supermarket music and shopping habits. He revealed that playing country music led to increased utility purchases, while classical music, again, made people dig deeper in their pockets for luxury items.
Shopping with Cher
A while ago I was walking the aisles of my local Woolworths. The new episode of one of my favorite TV shows was about to come out and I had five friends for a night out. I wanted to impress. At least one of the five I had a crush on – wanted them to know I knew how to serve.
Already vibrant, I made it to Flea Alley when Cher’s The Shoop Shoop Song entered the scene. Suddenly I decided that the Chicken Twisties were just as important as the Cheese Twisties. The Cheezels were as important as the original Thins. And how do you offer original Thins without salt or vinegar? They all entered the cart as I walked to the cheese display wondering if it was all “in her kiss” as Cher sang.
Wasn’t it possible that I had been the victim of musical manipulation in the store? Couldn’t that be part of Woolies’ plan – to make me buy more crisps with their catchy tunes? Could supermarkets be aware of North’s research, settling for a diet of the latest pop music as a sort of country in limbo between country music and classical?
North is not convinced. He thinks it’s just that the two big supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, “create the kind of vibe they want out there, which obviously for a mass market supermarket has to be pretty accessible.”
The musicologist finds it surprising that neither of Australia’s two major supermarkets does much to differentiate itself from the other. Sure, Coles might have a dedicated radio station, but the tunes you hear in Woolworths come from a very similar hymn sheet. (Woolworths didn’t answer specific questions when I wrote my Aisle bop if I want to compose for Guardian Australia in mid-September, saying only that he had a “tailor-made playlist” for his radio in store.)
“When you think of the attention to marketing and in-store signage, I find it so strange that so little attention is paid to music in this context,” says North. “Because I’m sure there’s all kinds of research that companies do on the layout of stores and what to put on which shelf, but not the audio environment. “
Now, with a little bit of time between me and the Cher chips incident, I had an experiment: if there was something with a fun beat, would that make me buy more cookies? Player, the song played in my local supermarket was a techno mix of Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill. My basket was left without a cookie.
But I’m pretty sure that if Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 was playing, I would have left with half of the cheese aisle. And maybe some pear paste. And maybe a bottle of refined mineral water.