' Background' music turns up sales volume

December 15, 1990|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Evening Sun Staff

It's the season to be shopping and merry music fills the air. But did you know the melodies you hear in stores and shopping malls are also a sales pitch?

In stores from groceries to specialty clothing outlets, what was once benign background music is becoming increasingly targeted to specific audiences, like the varied sounds of radio stations. Sometimes the music is even interrupted by "deejays" pitching ads or public service announcements.

You still hear "elevator music" (actually called "Environmental Music" by the pioneering Muzak firm). But to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the sounds they are a' changing. You may even hear Dylan, for rock music, oldies and even country sounds are being programmed by merchants. In some retail arenas, the play list changes through the day to match the crowds that shop at different times.

There are stores where you can buy the music you hear on the spot. In others, the programming's subtler goal is to put shoppers in the mood to buy or, to quote a Muzak sales brochure, "leave them with a good impression that brings them back soon."

And while the holidays may bring the sounds of the season to more shoppers' attention, the increasing sophistication of musical marketing is a trend continuing through the year. What's more, video marketing is beginning to join the audio element.

How pervasive are these background blandishments? Take a shopping trip by an average couple:

Pushing through the doors of a big area mall, they first hear the sounds of Muzak. But it is not necessarily syrupy instrumental stuff. Early in the morning, when "mall walkers" of mature years stay fit by strolling around and around, the music might be '40s swing sounds. Later in the day, when teens shop after school, it's more up-tempo hits by the original artists.

In and out down the mall, our shoppers visit an assortment of national chain clothing outlets, such as The Limited, The Gap, Lane Bryant, Victoria's Secret, Fashion Bug and Merry Go Round. In some malls they could check out Macy's or Saks Fifth Avenue, the sportsman chains Abercrombie & Fitch and Eddie Bauer sportsman stores or Banana Republic clothing stores.

Chances are the music is different in each store. Yet it has all been pre-recorded in Seattle by the firm AEI Music Network, Inc., a Muzak competitor whose clients include each of those chains. Every month the retail outlets might receive a long-playing audio tape tailored to their clientele, or take advantage of a newer technology, the direct satellite broadcast of programming.

A spokesman for AEI boasts that some Top 40 songs on its contemporary Debut service might actually be heard in stores before they hit the radio stations.

Later, in a Waxie Maxie's record store, our shoppers might be taken by a certain song they hear while browsing the CD racks -- George Michael, say, or Madonna. When it's over, a deejay announces the album is on special today in this very store. The retailer's mock radio sound system is provided to the chain's 34 stores from its Boston corporate headquarters, complete with the chain-wide sales pitches.

Similarly, on a gift-buying visit to The Nature Company store in Harborplace, our couple is struck by some nice New Age music on the stereo and an underwater video playing on a big television monitor in the store. By now it's no surprise that both audio tapes and video cassettes can be purchased on the spot. And in some cases, the composer/artist might actually have been commissioned by this store chain to do the work.

In the afternoon, our average couple might stop at McDonald's for something to eat. Here, the background program of light rock/instrumental music is from 3M Sound, another national competitor to Muzak.

Finally, shopping for dinner at the local Safeway, our weary buyers may or may not notice the nice sounds of holiday music are occasionally interrupted to alert them to store specials or gently urge not to forget cellophane tape to wrap presents. The voice spots come in between music ranging from conventional background easy listening to country, and the whole program has been produced in Utah and beamed to the store by satellite.

"It's like their own private radio station," says Rod Tiede, national sales manager of Broadcast International in Midvale, Utah. The firm sends locally tailored programming to some 800 Safeway outlets across the country, as well as a number of other chains, including Acme and Thriftway stores.

What have we learned from this shopping trip? That music evidently sells, and the closer to customers' tastes the better.

For example, James M. Eagen, vice president and general manager of this area's Muzak affiliate, Audio Communications Network, Inc., provides studies which show a 17 percent rise in purchases in stores where Muzak plays, and an 18 percent rise in the time which customers spend in the stores.

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