Introduction : Quality Sound Forum
Music and sound systems have great potential to influence consumer behavior towards sales. Retailers have long awaited measurement and execution standards to maximize this potential. Quality sound is both a merchant’s tool and a competitive advantage. Like nothing else, it helps define a unique store atmosphere and separates it from other stores by entertaining customers, employees, and anyone else appreciating the brand. It was important to have this kind of discussion about the effects of quality sound delivery in the retail environment. Retailers struggle to establish their identities through their stores and their merchandising, and sound is one of those subtle stimuli that can do so much to drive customer behavior if done right. This white paper outlines key observations from forum discussion and calls for greater industry-wide awareness to some of the needs yet unfulfilled for businesses to take full advantage of quality sound.
Discovering Quality Sound
University of Cincinnati professor James J. Kellaris, Ph.D., speaks of the apparent first research conducted about business music that failed in 1917 — and then succeeded twenty years later. Thomas Edison postulated that music would positively impact production at a British factory, Kellaris says. His attempts to prove this phenomenon, however, showed no effect. In 1937, others replicated Edison’s study and found the positive results Edison was looking for. Music did, in fact, create an atmosphere that inspired production. The chief difference between the two studies was the quality of the sound systems used, which had greatly improved over years of development. Since that time, a fair amount of research has opened our eyes to music’s influence on the behavior of workers and consumers. But no apparent study has expounded on the indirect discovery that the way sound is delivered can fall short of eliciting an intended response from an audience and enhance the experience.
Sound’s Impact Within a Store
Increases in customer sophistication and education, technological advances, and economical conditions have all raised customer expectations of the shopping experience over the past 15 years. And since customer experiences during a store visit (and what they do as a result) are in large part up to the retailer, great effort goes into designing stores to creatively display products and reinforce powerful brands.
However, according to John Stiernberg, Principal Analyst for Stiernberg Consulting, too often store décor doesn’t accommodate all five senses that combine to impact what customers enjoy or dislike in the whole experience — particularly the sense of sound.
Imagine a customer shopping for athletic gear in a sporting goods store that is as quiet as a library or with a sound system riddled with static. What influence — positive or negative — does that environment have on the customer’s opinion of the store and motivation to buy merchandise? Businesses can’t afford to lose a customer when it is very affordable to win them over with effective audio merchandising. On that premise, businesses are turning more and more to creative music and quality sound systems to differentiate their brands and excite and entertain customers. Frost & Sullivan estimates that the number of U.S. business locations that subscribe to professional music services is growing from nine percent in 1999 to approximately 18 percent in 2006 (see figure 1). With added control and professional music programming to appeal to their demographics, their goal is to capture more sales and higher ticket receipts. Still, while confidence in professional music programming continues to build, what remains to be seen is how much of that music is actually delivered in a way that causes the intended effects. If business sound systems are not installed with high performance criteria, they will likely fall short of their purpose, as was the case with Edison’s factory sound system
The Role of Quality Sound in Business Today
As a design tool, audio sets the mood of a store and can cause people to tap their toes and think, “This place just feels right.” One study on consumer behavior found that seven of ten retail customers preferred businesses with music, and six of ten ended up spending more in their purchases, thanks to music’s influence. Kevin Flynn, Senior Vice President for The Finish Line, Inc., says that between his 430 stores with strong sounding music and around 20 yet to be upgraded, the environmental impact is clear.
“There’s a noticeable difference in time spent in the stores, what the employees do, and how customers are motivated,” he says. The Finish Line’s target audience is 12 to 24-year-olds — a group that has high expectations of audio, being frequently exposed to today’s digital-quality sound systems. Consequently, his stores’ sound systems need to strike a familiar chord. “We want the sound to surprise people when they enter our store and for them to suddenly find themselves singing to the music, or really motivated to buy athletic shoes,” he says.
However, the ability to surprise customers is challenged by increasing quality in everyday consumer products. Robin Sibucao, Chief Operating Officer of P Network, explains, “When I grew up, an AM crystal radio was quality sound. Now people have quadraphonic, THX, and Dolby in their home. It used to be that we would be pleased to find quality sound in a retail environment; today it’s a requirement.” The reality is that most in-store systems are not making today’s grade for quality sound.
An informal survey of more than a thousand sound systems at national retail stores and restaurants found that the majority of the systems were undependable, hard to operate, and even identical systems looked and sounded different from location to location. On-site staff were often left to manage the systems without guidelines on what specific performance and monitoring criteria would ensure the right output at different times of day.
What measurements should sound systems be graded against? And how can optimal sound be established, scaled and enforced affordably for single-store businesses and repeatedly across a franchise or chain?
Defining Quality Sound
Since the introduction of business audio over 75 years ago, there has never been any kind of industry standards for the design, installation, and performance of business music systems. In the absence of industry standards, some key players took on a leadership role to identify, document, and enforce fundamental methods and procedures for the benefit of the businesses that would employ such standards. The standard is simply a process that can be applied to each retailer’s unique needs.
As a result, a number of retailers, sound system designers, and installers now find sound systems can be clearly outlined, easy to operate, and consistent and balanced across a chain. Primarily, a collaborative effort between the sound system designer and the retailer must be held to establish what the performance needs are for that specific environment so the designer can work on how to deliver the music and ad messaging (if applicable). Is the music classical? Instrumental? Edgy hip-hop, new age, or pop rock? What type of tonality does this type of music require? What low and high volume settings will maintain store consistency? Are there areas of the store where activity increases or decreases throughout the day? The answers to these questions help define the design of the system, according to Bill Calma, Chief Operating Officer of Tannoy/TGI North America. “Retailers are looking for effective communication within their environment. They’re looking for control of the environment. And they’re looking for an atmosphere that’s conducive to retail sales. What does that take and how do you achieve the goal? That’s where the design part of the equation comes in.” The retailer’s and sound system designer’s collaborative planning now begins to pay off. Having established the purpose of the sound system in advance, and with the assumption that the sound system and the source signal of music and messaging are distortion-free, Sibucao says that there are four basic criteria that distinguish quality sound for a business: 1) sound pressure level (or volume), 2) coverage, 3) voice intelligibility, and 4) tonal balance.
1. Sound pressure level
In their collaborative plans, the retailer and designer have established the volume requirements for the store, including how loud it has to be just to carry above the ambient noise in the room. The sound system must create enough energy and presence to appropriately represent the specific music style for a specific demographic. Ever-changing activity levels throughout the day and throughout the week may also require volume levels to be adjusted to meet specific changes in localized areas or departments.
In the early stages of gathering data or designing, you can readily address high traffic areas you wish to accentuate. Likewise, there may be areas that you need to play down, such as restrooms and customer service counters. Generally, the sound system loudspeaker coverage should be as even as possible without hot or dead spots unless specified otherwise in the collaborative planning meetings.
3. Voice Intelligibility
Artists’ vocals and in-store advertising and messaging (if used) must be clear and distinct. Voices must sound natural. The human audio sensory system is most familiar and critical of the human voice.
4. Tonal Balance
Tonal balance is the continuity between bass, mid-range, and high frequencies (see figure 2). Can the music styles appropriately entertain the audience through the sound system’s capacity? Will any frequencies need to be enhanced or reduced to drive a specific emphasis that feels right and represents the original artist or music genre?
The business music industry should be viewed as an art as much as a science. With documented performance criteria as the framework of a quality sound system design, the art of music can take hold in the business environment. From the collaborative meetings with the retailer, the sound system designer takes note of the artistic impressions and demographic considerations that the retailer needs in the environment. The designer must then methodically seek out high performance audio components from leading manufacturers, detailing for the installer how the components should be put together. The installer’s work and the system’s ongoing performance can be scientifically measured to verify that the system meets the original expectations of the retailer. Then the art of music programming can come through with precise execution of the music style, tempo, vocals, and all other features that will appeal to the store’s audience.
High fashion retailers today have the ability to combine the strengths of creative audio entertainment with their visual merchandising decisions. “When you start integrating sound into visual merchandising,” one forum audience member observed, “you realize we’re not talking about visual merchandising after all, we’re talking about merchandising and marketing; and I think that’s where the discussion ought to be all the time”
Are the Commercial Effects of Quality Sound Measurable?
From the retailer’s perspective, a quality sound system must prove its worth in objective terms (criteria that show financial impact) as well as those subjective (indicating customer appeal). Examples of objective measurements include:
• Increased sales
• Increased average sales ticket or transaction value
• Increased profits through sales of high margin products
• Higher employee productivity and retention
• Decreased operating expenses
Stiernberg notes that there has never been a study that would measure the direct effects of a premium sound system on human behavior. Still, the negative effects of poor-sounding systems are quite apparent. “Take the same merchandise from the store with the foreground music that adds to the brand and put it in a plain vanilla store with no music or poor quality music, and watch those sales go right down,” says Mark Miosi, President of Sound Source Electronix, Inc. When an audio system isn’t right, the result can be so subtle that customers leave and they don’t know why. “Customers may not even identify that the sound isn’t right,” Stiernberg says. “They just go away feeling that something’s missing, and think, ‘I’m never coming back.’ ” “That’s a hard customer to get back, because they can’t even tell you why they left,” Calma noted. “You can’t afford to have people walk out when it’s so easy and so cost-effective to do a quality audio system in the first place.”
Obstacles to Quality Sound
“The design is only as good as what the retailer, the designer, and the installer do with it after they have established the design, completed the installation, and set forth a service and maintenance program,” Sibucao stresses. Despite a retailer’s and sound system designer’s best efforts to correctly create an ideal system, a few factors can cause a design to not sound as it was intended.
Access to System Controls.
“Probably the biggest enemy to good quality sound in a retail environment is the employees of that retail environment,” Miosi says. “The system must be tamperproof or pretty soon you have a store that sounds out of proportion. A system that operates simply is better,” he says. The Finish Line made a conscious decision to remove the volume controls from storefronts and place them securely behind locked rack systems, based on expert assessment and discussions in the design stage. “Quality for us is sound consistency,” Flynn explains. “A lot of careful audio design and installation goes into achieving consistent results. Having someone alter the volume in a way that affects the image we want to create can undo all the good design.”
Miosi observes that consistency in electronics is not only using the same components, but also specifying how the components are to be integrated. Leaving installation contractors to install system components and lay wires according to their own inclinations is an invitation for any number of results.
“An installer may be called to service a real neat installation, and then he’ll walk into the next one and spend three hours just figuring out the mess. And that costs the retailer in the end,” says Miosi. The forum panel agreed this is often the case when retailers are not given clear installation and system maintenance documentation from the designer or system provider. Most retailers have yet to see their systems measured and documented for optimal performance. Sibucao says stores generally have no information on premise of what their sound system is designed to do. This threatens long-term reliability of the system, as onsite maintenance becomes a continual and costly challenge, and a good system will prove its worth in years to come on its merits of reliability. “It comes down to documenting things in a manual that not only the designer has, but the retailer, each store, and the installer have as well,” he says. “The installation then meets exactly what the designer and customer had decided on, at the time of completion and for years to come.”
Documentation can also illustrate how to fine-tune the system to work with certain music styles, unique floor plans, customer traffic, and store fixtures. With established performance parameters, the installer can deliver the right combination of sound pressure level, coverage, voice intelligibility, and tonal balance for the retailer. And in reverse fashion, the retailer has full right to monitor the installer’s work according to the measurements of the design to make sure that the intended value comes through in
Without a consistent plan, a national chain’s installations could produce inconsistent sound from identical store layouts and sound components. Can you ensure that all parties do their part to make sure that it’s installed properly using a repeatable process?
The panel encouraged retailers to be sure their systems are meticulously designed and then uniformly implemented — “CODE: create once, duplicate everywhere.”
A report card is the finishing touch that verifies the execution of the design. Because sound is partially subjective (appeals to personal taste), the equipment must sound, look, and operate right for the retailer as well as measure up correctly on paper. Performance checklists confirm that the system meets the designer’s and retailer’s intended purpose. Spectral balance, coverage, voice intelligibility, and good volume all help to create a business audio environment to build from. “But with a standard there will always be a place for customization for each individual retailer,” Sibucao says.
“The installer needs to understand from one store to the next what the parameters have to be,” Sibucao explains. “Each equipment component comes with its own performance specs. However, every room is different. The installer has to tune the system to what the expectations were from the very beginning and be able to replicate that over and over faithfully in every store.”
Underscoring the need for flexibility, Miosi says the basic components may very well be the same, but they still need to be tuned and adjusted at every location. “(Each) system needs the same consistent, high quality design; then it can be (fine-tuned) from there,” he says.
“We have all different sizes of stores — 4,000 to 25,000 square-foot stores,” Flynn says about The Finish Line. “We have maybe three (standard installations) that we’ve set for each type of store… and it’s not easy to get our sound right, but we’re achieving that.”
It’s often a team effort within a business that will bring up all of the right considerations in deciding the right music and sound system needs for stores. But recently there has been an increase of executives “tuning in” to the significance of these systems to help market business and product.
“There’s more participation in the process than there was years ago,” Sibucao adds. “Marketing sets the feel and the branding, and everyone who’s concerned about the store image is involved.”
For The Finish Line, the requirements for quality sound began in the area of store design. It meshed well with visual merchandisers and marketing to deliver the right brand image. Up the ladder, the CEO too became involved as it applied to the overall merchandising appeal of the stores.
“It’s a group effort,” Flynn says. “It’s a matter of defining the core consumer and then designing with laser beam accuracy to attract that customer.”
Conclusions and Calls to Action
The forum helped shed light on many common challenges among retailers as audience members were invited to make inquiries of the panel. When asked to summarize what difference quality sound has made for his stores, Flynn answered: “It’s very difficult to set yourselves apart in the mall environment. I think our store design does it extremely well; and in that clean, well-lit, well-organized environment that we’ve created, music is one other element that sets us apart from our competition.” Some additional forum questions are the foundation for continued discussion:
• “How do you justify the expense of a quality sound system when sales are slipping, when the economy is weak, or when you’re looking to cut costs?”
For The Finish Line, the issue has always been the need to create a consistent brand, and then to stick to that brand over time, Flynn says. Thus, “your brand will come out of the lean times even stronger or worth more market share than your competitors.” The panelists agreed that for commercial spaces today, quality sound remains a competitive “have” or “have-not” as a result of the philosophy of those in the decision process — how they view the importance of music and sound quality as a reflection of
“If you’re about quality, you’re about quality,” says Miosi, and your investment in a store system will be a reflection of that philosophy.
• “What must be controlled to effectively measure the differences between a premium retail sound system and a standard system?”
There are many merchandising factors that may make it difficult to measure the affects of sound. Hardware components, design, documentation, installation, music source, music playback device, atmosphere, environment dynamics, store promotions and advertising to name a few.
• “Can a value quotient correlate the system cost with a sales-per-squarefoot return?”
This type of analysis could evaluate the return on investment of premium and economy sound systems. Tracked over time, the systems could have their impact on sales compared against their expense (including ongoing onsite maintenance and service fees). The review may also indicate a payback time element that shows when the investment into a system turns into a profit center. Under the assumption that the quality of the design and installation would be constant, the findings could accurately represent the cost/value relationship as the systems prove their influence over time.
10 Business Considerations When Choosing a Sound System
1) Quality sound is a competitive tool.
2) Your merchandising strategy can pervade all five human senses. Are in-store music and sound systems viewed as an afterthought or an essential catalyst for your store experience?
3) The right music and sound systems can drive business. Has all of your team discussed and agreed on how they expect the sound system to influence the feel of their environment?
4) Because today’s customer is a sounder sophisticated individual with expectations that surpass what most retailers’ sound systems environments were designed to produce, your sound system can reflect positively or negatively on your brand.
5) A commitment to consistent maintenance can extend the life and positively affect the output of a sound system.
6) Clear documentation of sound systems saves money, as installers and service technicians will know how it is designed to perform well.
7) Without standardization, different sound systems in different regions and in different store layouts can add confusion and expense to the business’s effort to provide universal audio experience.
8) Fixtures, people, and surfaces are all changing factors. Sound equipment requirements must be in harmony with the overall store design.
9) The cost of designing and installing sound systems is rather low when compared to other components in store design such as lighting, fixtures, etc. Inexpensive engineering may be attractive at the proposal stage, but the expense of a poorly designed sound system can grow post-installation with servicing, and it has the potential to negatively impact a retailer’s brand image.
10) The best sound system guarantee is one that is never needed. The frustration of frequent low performance concerns can separate you from realizing the value of your investment.
Other Market and Technology Trends
Trends by End User
Successful business owners appeal to all the senses to create an environment that supports their marketing objectives and projects a total image. What a consumer sees, feels and hears dramatically influences what he or she thinks about the retail products. Businesses can no longer afford to ignore the advantages of quality audio or settle for yesterday’s technology. Service providers in the industry offer an incredibly diverse music programming with pure, digital quality. Delivered programs meet digital CD standards for dynamic range, signal to noise ration and other key measurements of high fidelity audio. Many providers offer a wide selection of music programs as well as custom collections on demand, 24 hours a day.
In the retail industry regional differences are key drivers in many decisions in regards to music genres. Retailers consider many factors when choosing the right mix of music for their place of business. For example, savvy apparel chain retailers in the South do not offer as many heavy woolen items than at their stores in the North. Likewise, store locations in the sunnier climates tend to have a lighter ambience as retailers modify the décor package to reflect a more casual atmosphere. There regional transitions also hold true for distributed sound. This music service tends to reflect the atmosphere of the store.
Music for use in the business environment is carefully programmed for a discerning audience. Business music providers typically have access to an in-depth library of song titles. The attention given to pairing songs for the business environment allow the subscriber to fill his or her business with the blend of music that not only meets their objectives, but also pleases every listener. It is believed that the employees productivity lessens around mid-morning (10:00 am), picks back up around mid-day and again decreases around 3:00 pm. This trend is taken into account as music is chosen. For example, jaunty music is chosen for the mid-morning and afternoon, as well as late night for the bleary-eyed employees on the graveyard shift.
There are several benefits incurred when investing in a business music service. Productivity and the customer retention are two issues facing the business environment today. In a corporate environment, the radio is not a fluid, controlled experience. As good music is played, the employee experiences a lift in his or her mood. It is shown that they become more productive. Their energy level is at an optimal level. Then suddenly, the daily news or weather report interrupts the music set and there is an abrupt and definite change in the employee’s concentration. This trend can also apply to customers in a retailing setting. As their mood dramatically shifts, they tend not to stay as long in the store.
Retail and situational factors could affect and moderate consumer purchases irrespective of the attitudes and purchase intention already established.
Shopping stressor has been explained as something occurring during the shopping activity, which disturbs the mental balance of an individual (Aylott & Mitchell, 1999). These stressors include aspects such as parking, poor signage, crowding, trolley maneuverability and checkout queue. Other factors affecting shopping outcomes include staff attitude and training, stock layout/relocation, impulse purchasing, time pressure, location, merchandise assortment, music, lighting, and heating (Aylott & Mitchell, 1999). One study measured the significance of different stressors affecting food-shopping habits. In the study, queuing and store crowding were viewed as the most stressful influencers that frustrated shoppers (Aylott & Mitchell, 1999). Appendix C provides a comprehensive map of these shopping stressors.
Point-of purchase displays incorporating numeric signs also influences consumer behaviour. A study conducted in the USA revealed that the amount of food products consumers purchase doubled when told they were given purchase limits such as ‘a limit of 10 per customer’ (Baird, 1999). In another instance, a suggestive selling sign such as ‘buy 10 for the weekend’ increased sales from 42-118%. Further, multiple unit pricing statements such as ‘3 for $3.00 instead of 1 for $1.00 increased sales by 35%.
At the core of this perception, the influence of anchoring such as quantity cue moderated consumer purchase decisions. In order to simplify the decision-making of shopping trips, consumers create biases, which allow them to make rapid, effortless decisions (Wansink, Kent & Hoch, 1998). When promotional signs suggest a number of products, they trigger consumer questions about what they should purchase. As shoppers decide on quantity to purchase, they look toward it as a point of affirmation (Wansink, Kent & Hoch, 1998). For example, a sign that reads ‘Buy 10 soups for your pantry’ may be interpreted as 10 soups are the amount that everybody usually buys. However, a little less may be purchased if the individual is not a large user. This bias indicated how the number acts as an achor from which consumers adjust appropriately (Wansink, Kent & Hoch, 1998).