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Hey! Ho! Let’s go shopping

Once the domain of the blandly inoffensive, supermarket music is getting a little more adventurous

David Hanson was making his way through a Winnipeg No Frills recently, when he noticed the in-store music wasn’t the bland assortment of songs that had soundtracked so many of his previous trips.

Hanson, one of the admins of a Facebook music group called No Hipsters Allowed, couldn’t help but notice the store was playing songs from music nerd-approved artists like Elvis Costello and the Ramones. “I remember thinking that it certainly enhanced my shopping experience, and was a welcome change for a person like me, who feels life is too short to listen to crappy music,” says Hanson.

It seems to be part of a broader trend. On Facebook, a page called Kroger Music highlights songs heard by customers while shopping at the U.S. chain. It reads like a college radio playlist from the 1980s: The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the Replacements’ “Kiss Me on the Bus,” and Joy Division’s mope rock classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (heard in the detergent aisle, apparently).

It’s no coincidence that grocers are getting more musically adventurous, says Jake Yakobi, director of business development at Toronto’s PCMusic, which develops playlists for hotel chains, restaurants and some grocery retailers including T&T Supermarket and Organic Garage. “Retail is taking a hit across the board, so proprietors are looking to be even more impactful, from their displays, to their lighting, to the vibe,” says Yakobi. “We’re telling a branded story through music.”

Yakobi says there is currently a “retro-renaissance” being led by ’80s artists like Madonna, George Michael and Devo. “People love those tracks, mainly because they make you feel good when you hear them,” he says.

Studies show an indisputable link between in-store music and customer behaviour. The much-cited 1982 study “Using Background Music to Affect the Behaviour of Supermarket Shoppers” found the tempo of the music played in grocery stores had a direct impact on in-store traffic flow and sales, with slower-tempo music capable of producing up to a 38.2% increase in daily sales.

With an emphasis on what the Los Angeles Times once described as “face-punch brevity,” bands like the Ramones might seem to run counter to that study’s findings. Still, retailers are increasingly mindful of making sure in-store music reflects their brand. “Music is tough because it’s so subjective,” says Matt Lurie, president and CEO of the Toronto-area chain Organic Garage. “The question is, what is most suitable for a shopping experience? The style of music has to match the brand image we’re trying to convey.”

When Organic Garage opened its newest store in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood last year, Lurie insisted the in-store soundtrack developed by PCMusic feature only recordings of live music, reasoning it was a better reflection of the company ethos. “Live music is not perfect; there’s no hiding the imperfections,” says Lurie. “I felt that it matched well what we’re trying to convey—which is that our store is not perfect. We like to be a little bit rough around the edges.”

Lurie says it’s impossible to assess what impact the in-store music has on sales, although customer feedback has generally been positive. “For customers that really clue in, the feedback has been very good,” he says. “It’s accomplished what we wanted, which is that it’s different and people have noticed.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s March/April 2018 issue.

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