Julian Treasure isn't happy with what he hears. Standing in a coffee bar in London's Soho district, he's forced to raise his voice to list the noises bouncing around the café: the rumble of an espresso machine, the hum of a chiller cabinet, and the tinny tones of Michael Jackson through shoddy speakers. To Treasure, it sounds like money slipping away. "The soundscape is brutal," he says. "You're not likely to stick around here for a second cup." As head of the Sound Agency, a consultancy in London, Treasure wants companies to tune into the realization that making the wrong noise can hurt business. "Sound changes moods," he explains, "yet most of the sound around us is unplanned."
It's long been known that sound can alter emotions and behavior. So why not use it to amplify profits? Treasure's agency acts like an audio interior designer, removing invasive noises or rescoring unappealing music. It sounds simple, but while many businesses have mastered the art of influencing shoppers through sight (with alluring displays) and smell (say, by piping the odor of fresh coffee throughout a store), few have focused on the smart use of sound, says retail psychologist Tim Denison of the British Retail Think Tank. But that's changing. U.S. firm Muzak used to be the butt of jokes for its bland elevator music, but it now supplies some 400,000 shops, restaurants and hotels around the world including Gap, McDonald's and Burger King with songs tailored to reflect their identity. "What we're trying to capture is a brand's essence," says Bob Finigan, Muzak's vice president of product and marketing. "We express the intangibles of a brand's identity their company values, their position in the market through the emotional power of music."
Indeed, says Treasure, without some outside help, retailers often misjudge their own customers. In 2005, for example, the Sound Agency swapped nursery rhymes and kiddie pop for relaxed classical music at a chain of British toy shops. The toy chain thought its stores were for kids, says Treasure, and forgot that the spending power belonged to parents who didn't want to be bombarded with Baa Baa Black Sheep. With the new music in place, he claims, sales jumped by up to 10%.
One rule seems clear for retail soundscapes: slow is good. As people's biorhythms often mirror the sounds around them, a gently meandering mix of classical music or soothing ambient noise encourages shoppers to slow down and relax. And, says Denison, an unhurried consumer is exactly what retailers want: "If customers are moving less quickly, they're more likely to engage with a product and make a purchase."
Treasure, who was a drummer in '70s and '80s postpunk bands the Transmitters and Missing Presumed Dead, may seem an unlikely figure to attune companies to the subtleties of sound. But his three-year-old, four-man firm has appeared at a time when businesses are waking up to the full possibilities of all the senses. Two years ago, Muzak formed a partnership with ScentAir, a U.S. firm that specializes in installing inviting aromas in hotels, restaurants and stores. "Instead of asking a customer, 'How does it sound?' when they walk into a business, we're now saying, 'How do you feel?'" says Muzak's Finigan. Shopping psychologist Denison says growing competition for the attention of time-pressed consumers will force businesses to focus more on the total sensory experience they provide: "Retailers will have to make their stores more stimulating." The message, loud and clear: master the senses, and pump up the sales volume.