stranger things recently reminded us how staggeringly different the standard of the American retail experience was just a few decades ago, when much of social life was centered in malls. Recently, we’ve seen a retail identity crisis, with high-profile DTC brands and big tech giants reimagining experiences thanks to the halo effect of Apple’s retail revolution. – with sometimes successful, often questionable results. And then COVID threw the industry into a reality check.
Taking a step back, retail functions could be simplified into three parts:
- Sell a quality product;
- Restore relationships with customers; and
- Manifest the spirit of the brand.
Move detail music beyond the loop
The primary drivers of these functions are the product, the teams of people who bring these functions to life, and the overall customer experience that results. Experience has always been the primary differentiator for retail, especially as convenience is increasingly becoming a rare reason for retail to exist. Of all the experience levers that go into retail brand design, sound has been the most underutilized.
Yes, Starbucks can create a buzz with over 4,000 song playlists, but most retailers limit in-store music in a way that’s constantly spinning. A common complaint from retail teams is the repetition of such playlists. Can you imagine listening to the same 20 songs over and over, day after day? This application of sound only scratches the surface of its potential.
It’s long been established that musical style, mood, and beats per minute can affect buyer behavior. “How and where audio is deployed and designed can have a significant impact on our experiences,” said Lauren McGuire, president of music studio made, a leading sonic branding agency. “We know that there is an 86% correlation between a person’s reaction to sound and their subconscious desire to return to that space.”
Today, retailers have the power to go beyond music and create powerful, immersive sound experiences through new audio technologies and the creative application of soundscapes that energize shoppers, calm tired employees and attract new customers.
Why hasn’t this already happened? Three reasons come to mind. First, immersive sound technologies had not matured to enable the seamless creation and deployment of large-scale immersive soundscapes.
Second, let’s call it the “it works, so don’t break it” illusion. Visual design has always been king – we don’t understood better, while our standards for what we see have been well cultivated since childhood. But one sense does not have to give for another to take more. Paying more attention to design with higher sound level won’t detract from the beautiful creativity of visual design; it just reinforces that neural reinforcement.
The third reason why sound gets left behind in retail is exactly that – instead of being an architectural and experiential factor in the first creative briefs, sound is usually tackled last. This leads to loudspeakers positioned in the ceiling, often linearly connected rather than individually addressable, and with very little processing infrastructure to allow sound dealers to do much. This is exactly why you’ve probably never heard of a job called “sound merchandiser”.
Wilhelm Oehl, of Eight, Inc.. and one of the first designers of Apple Stores, sums it up by noting, “Immersive audio has long been overlooked and has never been a true equal in experience design. It wasn’t just the setup and expense that ruled out the sound, but the ability to create amazing immersive content and use it in wildly different places is equally important.
This is what a technology like Spatial can help unlock. Technology has finally caught up with potential. It’s now about overcoming the awareness and understanding the potential, considering it from the earliest stages of design and through other aspects of a retail experience.
This is when a sound merchandiser can design an audio planogram for enjoyment, memory recall, and propensity to buy. Visual merchandising planograms are common practice, and now is the time to apply the same principles to sound. Architecturally, there is little cost difference in the clever placement of the speakers on 3D layers that integrate seamlessly into the design while unlocking a richer sound delivery platform. With the infrastructure components in place, the magic can really begin to create immersive soundscapes.
Reaching customers through a sound experience
How can soundscapes have a meaningful impact on the three functions of retail? For example, consider consumer technology retail. Immersive and interactive soundscapes can be tailored to viscerally amplify product functionality at the point of exploration and purchase. Trying out a fitness accessory can transport you right to the center of a basketball court in the middle of a game. Or you can try a meditation feature and your own corner of the store turns into a Zen garden. In fashion, the fitting room is the ultimate decision-making space – buy it or leave it? Unfortunately, most dressing rooms are still too hot, too bland, too big, and rarely optimized to get to “yes.”
Today, the science of sound, and in particular auditory rhythm simulation, can be used to superimpose mental affectation imperceptibly onto any soundscape. For example, use soothing brain training in areas where clients are trying to solve their problems. Immersive sound in an area of stress and dissatisfaction can subconsciously reduce friction and allow for a more pleasant repair of the relationship for both client and staff. This also applies to the back of the house, where immersive sound can help team members recharge, relax, or focus.
Finally, as part of manifesting the spirit of the brand, immersive sound can be, just like store windows or a big event, a canvas for a lot of fun. Bring the spirit of a buzzing fashion show to the store entrance. Associate the soundscapes with the seasonal campaigns of the moment. Buying coats in the summer? Give the brain a little boost by transporting customers to a magical skating rink. Complete a stunning visual installation with an equally stunning sound experience. It is finally possible to accomplish with infinite flexibility and interactivity without breaking the bank. Make the bold bet before it doesn’t sound so bold in a few years.
So where to start ? The first Apple Store wasn’t a giant cube on Fifth Avenue. It was in a mall. Dream big, but build slowly. Ask: “Where do we need to move the needle the most?”, “Where can experience levers affect important metrics?” and “Among these levers, where can we test and iterate with immersive sound?” As with anything else, harnessing the underutilized power of sound requires careful alignment across all pillars of branding.
He doesn’t need to think too much or have endless meetings, but he does need to be smart. Get architects, merchandisers, product designers, and store team members thinking about one question: how can immersive sound experiences dramatically improve what we do? So treat yourself to a playground.
Install eight to ten speakers across three dimensions of a space. Try out pre-existing soundscapes and bring in more people to experience the magic. Then wait for the creative responses to flow. See how merchandisers, marketers, and PR people are starting to come up with ideas. Test out a few, then take the sonic leap.
Raja Haddad is a market leader and advisor to companies such as Spatial. With experience in management consulting in New York and in technology in Silicon Valley, his projects have included the mobile and digital transformation of Apple Retail stores, as well as the launch of the first generation of the Apple Watch. In Paris, Haddad helped legendary late designer Alber Elbaz build and launch his smart fashion house and latest opus, AZ Factory.