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Musical Merchandising

Considering the insidious effects of store soundtracks


Published March 10, 2004 at 4:17 p.m.

Has this ever happened to you? You're standing in an underground corridor that undulates with sound. From a womb-like opening, a familiar aural hook calls to you. It's a deep male voice backed by a melancholy synthesizer… Depeche Mode? The Cure? That song from Pretty in Pink? While you're trying to pin down the melody, you start browsing through the clothes that draw your eye.

Next thing you know you're in a dressing room. There's a speaker in here, and the song has changed, but not really -- it's still something you're always on the verge of recognizing. They played it at your prom, or maybe at your five-year high school reunion. Twirling in front of the three-way mirror, you feel like a star in the video of your life, where past, present and future all bliss out to the same beat. You may not have the body you had at 15, but you do have a credit card.

You scuttle to the cash-wrap and fork over your plastic. But you're only two seconds out the door when the cold wave of reality hits. Your high school days are gone. The songs you love have become oldies, and a new generation of tone-deaf pop-tarts is strutting around in Madonna's bustier. Tearing open the shiny bag that holds your fantasy, you see with a sinking heart… parachute pants. You've fallen victim to a cleverly chosen store soundtrack.

Retailers have known for decades that music has the power to create artificial environments, relaxing consumers and putting them in the buying mood. Muzak, originally dreamed up as a way to keep restive employees in line, has been with us since the 1920s. For years, the distinction between music to groove to and music to buy to was fairly clear. While you might have heard a Muzak version of "Yesterday" in the mall, you were unlikely to hear the real thing.

All that changed in 1971, when the executives at AEI Music came to the "realization" -- as their corporate website puts it -- "that ‘elevator music' just wasn't cool." They began designing programs of "foreground music" -- songs intended to be heard by shoppers, not just passively absorbed. By the '80s, Muzak was in the foreground music business, too, and going by the nifty new name of "audio architecture."

We can thank those forward-thinking execs at AEI for making stepping into Abercrombie & Fitch in the Burlington Town Center a lot like stepping into a dance club. The steady beat of a trance-y remix with token lyrics -- lots of ahs and oh babys -- hits shoppers on the threshold, where the enormous black-and-white likeness of a model looms like a bouncer. (Are you sure you belong here? Your ID says you're over 30.)

A store like Abercrombie uses music not just to soothe or excite its customers but to define them. While elevator music is pretty universal in its appeal -- or lack thereof -- foreground music encourages branding and niche marketing. Dad's classic guitar-rock is unlikely to appeal to the kids, so today's Muzak programmers offer their customers a wide range of playlists with names such as EuroStyle, Acoustic Crossroads, Power Rock and Destination. Each targets a specific demographic -- "Active Urban" women in their thirties, say, or "Suburb-an" family men with traditional values.

All you have to do is match the descriptions to your customer base and voila: music that increases sales. Jeff Daniel is president of Rock River Communications, a Brattleboro-based company that mixes CD compilations for retail giants like The Gap. He told the Boston Globe that he can step into a store and tell almost instantly whether the soundtrack is doing its job.


Small retailers that don't hire an expert to create their in-store sound can still practice branding on the cheap. "Our customers tend to be middle-aged, intelligent, thoughtful, and our music reflects that," says Debbie Crown at Burlington's Common Threads, where the sounds range from Cuban salsa to light jazz to Prokoviev.

If music defines a niche, knowing when to change the CD can be useful in expanding one's customer base. Marilyn Pingree, owner of Marilyn's in Burlington, says the satellite-beamed music wafting through her upscale boutique can be "anything from hip-hop to classical… depending on the crowd we have, younger or older."

But are shoppers really so sheep-like that the right groove on a wall-mounted speaker can keep them in a store, regardless of what the place actually, um… sells? If Hot Topic and Banana Republic were to switch soundtracks -- and nothing else -- would they both take a serious hit in revenues?

Just as an experiment, I take a stroll through downtown Burlington and listen hard to the sounds of marketing. (For consistency I stick with clothing boutiques, the stores most likely to sell their customers an identity -- or a fantasy.) I figure that if the store with my favorite music is also the one where I'd normally feel most tempted to make an impulse buy, I'll have some evidence that "audio architecture" works.

My first stop is Hot Topic, the chain maligned in hip circles for making it possible for suburban kids to go punk without sticking a single safety pin through their clothes. I've always dreaded this store's smug corporate "subversiveness," but I find the music strangely… welcoming. Most of it is more brat rock than punk, but The Clash's shivery 1982 protest song "Know Your Rights" almost puts me in the frame of mind to buy a rude T-shirt. Nah… what would Joe Strummer have said?

Across the hallway at Pac Sun, the tempo is more upbeat and the playlist relentlessly current: The White Stripes and Aaliyah mix it up with the Green Day-clone bands that seem to be the unofficial mascots of youth-oriented stores. The overall effect is saucy and, for someone my age, a little off-putting. Which is no doubt the intent.

At Cache, citrus-colored clothes appear to be soaking up repeated tart infusions of girl-pop. I flee from the wails of Michelle Branch (or is it the sulky stylings of Avril Lavigne?) into The Gap, where I figure a Gen-Xer will feel more at home.

Sure enough, the place is a bastion of what Alicia Silverstone's character in Clueless called "complaint rock" -- furtive, sad, over-articulate vocals lamenting, "Why do I run away?" and "Living with you is better than being alone." The whole store is infused with an electronic wistfulness that seems to match the retro stylings of the clothes on display.

Urban Outfitters has caught the '80s bug, too, but it's an earthier, funkier mix -- something I can imagine hearing in my college-town coffeehouse before it became a Starbucks. I can't help appreciating the perfect synergy of The Police's "King of Pain" playing above a display of striped asymmetrical skirts and white jelly shoes.

April Cornell entices me inside with Squeeze's "Black Coffee in Bed," followed by Whitney Houston in her floppy-hair-bow phase. And by now I've realized something: People my age are buying things. A lot of things.


When I was a teen, boomers' tastes defined "classic" rock. Had Old Navy existed back then, it might have rocked to the rhythm of the bestselling Motown soundtrack from The Big Chill. Today I'm greeted by Hall and Oates' "Kiss on My List" (1981), followed by a steady, loud stream of pop/r&b that might have been ripped from a Top-40 playlist anytime in the ‘80s. I feel like the hero of the J. Geils Band's "Centerfold" (a song I have yet to hear in a store): shocked, yet a bit tickled, by the fact that "my memory has just been sold."

Feeling targeted, I escape to stores where you can barely hear the tasteful trickle of bossa nova/jazz/adult contemporary from the speakers (J. Crew) and retailers where one dance remix slides into another in a near-wordless soup of sound (The Limited, Banana Republic). There are stores where it sounds like someone left on an Easy Listening station (Charlotte Russe, Chico's), and others that set an upscale spring-break mood with syncopated rhythms and jazzy croonings in French (Sweet Lady Jane, Monelle). In all my samplings, the only song I hear twice is "The Girl from Ipanema," which probably says something about where we'd rather be during mud season.

Toting my one impulse buy -- yes, the combined efforts of Urban Outfitters and Sting got to me -- I wonder if there's a single store that doesn't subject its musical choices to rigorous market research.

At locally owned boutiques, individual intuition and preference still seem to play a role. "This appeals to people across demographic lines," Marilyn Pingree says about the Cowboy Junkies she's playing at that moment. And, since both my dad and I like the band, I have to agree. "We let [employees] express what they want," says Stephanie Douglas-Hughes, co-owner of Phoenix, who's currently spinning a Norah Jones CD. "A lot of women artists, a lot of jazz -- we like to discover new music."

Thrift/vintage stores go a step further. They seem to delight in jarring their customers with musical juxtapositions as bizarre as the experience of finding a flannel workshirt across the aisle from a sequined disco gown. At Battery Street Jeans, a dribble of oldies segues straight into a garage-punk song about the trial of O.J. Simpson. At Old Gold, I hear hard rock followed by the silvery ululations of a Bollywood star. "There's no such thing as an Old Gold soundtrack," an employee tells me adamantly.

As I stroll home, the cynic in me wonders if playing whatever the hell you want on the sound system is itself a cunning strategy, aimed at kids jaded from a lifetime of being the target demo. But then again, I'm just glad that music in a public place can still occasionally surprise me.