As a small business owner, you want to make sure your storefront or restaurant is appealing to as many customers as possible.
You want them to stay and browse the items in your store, enjoy more food or drink, or soak in a warm, inviting atmosphere.
When you created the interior design for the space, you or your designer took customers’ psychology into account. However, interior layout, colors, and lighting are not the only ways to create a specific atmosphere in your shop; in-store music is a great way to invigorate shoppers’ energy or relax diners enjoying an upscale meal. If your business is still in the process of growing, you may not be able to afford a large custom installation, but you can still strategically place speakers based on your space and use a special music streaming service to manage mood-based playlists.
What to Consider in a Retail Sound System Setup
In order to decide what kind of sound system you need to set up to create the best ambiance for your store, there are some elements you should think about.
- What is in the environment? Are the floors carpeted, hardwood, concrete, or another material? Are there acoustic panels, or is there not much insulation between you and your neighbors? What are the ceiling tiles like? Tiny details can drastically change how sound reflects off surfaces, how it is absorbed by furniture, or how it is distorted by other sounds from outside.
- What kind of tone and volume are appropriate? How loud or soft music is influences whether it is experienced as foreground or background sound. Some people prefer foreground music while others prefer background tunes. Additionally, the key each song is written in, the speed at which it is played, and whether there are lyrics or not can greatly influence customers’ behavior and attitude. You can use some demographic research to determine which genre, tone, and volume of music will be most appropriate for the group you want to reach with your business. Many business owners find it beneficial to use at least four speakers, one for each corner of the room. This means you can reduce the volume coming from each speaker while blanketing the room in your musical choices. When customers stand next to the speakers, they won’t feel like the music is too loud, and when they are farther away from the speakers, they won’t feel like the music is too quiet. With larger storefronts or more ambient noise, you may consider adding more speakers.
- What kind of technology will you use? Using a wireless speaker and your smartphone works well in your home, but it likely won’t sound great in your business. Using multiple speakers, on a monophonic channel, can create the best surround sound without losing any of the parts of the song to a stereo speaker arrangement. Many systems designed for homes include the option of stereo outputs to create vibrant surround sound with more than one speaker, but in an environment with a lot of noise or a shopper moving quickly through the space, stereo sound means that aspects of the music will be lost, depending on where customers are in the store. One underrated piece of sound system technology is the amplifier. This can regulate the volume of music from each speaker while improving the overall quality of the sound coming out of the speaker. Amplifiers take the signals from the playing device – which can often be a smartphone or a tablet – and smooth them out, so they do not sound tinny or crackle with static. You may consider chaining amplifiers together if you have a noisy environment, like a restaurant with a small, busy kitchen. You may need to consider wire size and type, working with laws about building codes and considering the amount of power it will take to amplify the signal from the music player to the furthest speaker. Additionally, high-quality equipment, especially hardware created to work specifically with your streaming music service, can improve the quality of the overall sound.
- How can musical variety improve mood throughout day? Some shoppers may wish to come in early while some diners prefer to snack late at night. Different demographic groups respond to different genres and speeds of music, so creating multiple playlists for different groups, different times of day, or for some holidays can encourage your customers to enjoy the atmosphere of your business.
- What else do you want to broadcast? Do you want to play ads for promotions your store offers? Do you host events you want to talk about? Will you need to page customers to let them know about seating or available items? Your sound system can play music, but it can also allow you to communicate with your customers, and, with new ways to link into smartphones and tablets, allow them to communicate with you.
- What flexibility would you like for future updates and adjustments? Working with one company for both hardware and software means that you can get consistent service, updates as the product changes or your business expands, and even help installing the system. Instead of cobbling a new system together, working with a professional company for a complete, synchronized system can greatly improve the sound quality and your customers’ experience.
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Technical Details for Commercial, Restaurant, or Retail Sound Systems Can Be Tricky
Any basic sound system, whether commercial or home-based, will start with a music or sound player, like a radio, smartphone, or record player. Then, this will be attached to an amplifier that boosts sound to the speakers. An amplifier is an electronic device that increases the amplitude (simply put, the loudness of sound) of electric signals. The term “amplifier” also refers to a device that is used in conjunction with a loudspeaker, which is most popularly used to amplify electric guitars and other electric musical instruments. For this guide, we will be using the first definition. An amplifier’s job is to take an electric current, magnify it many times over, and then send it to a loudspeaker, so that an audience can hear an enhanced version of the original sound.
Finally, the system will have at least one speaker; retail and restaurant settings will have at least four speakers. In the context of sound systems, the full word to use is “loudspeaker,” which converts the electric current provided by the amplifier, into audio sound waves. Without the speaker, there would be no human way of understanding the currents being thrown out by the amplifier.
A 70-volt commercial system is standard, but the setup is different than with a home 70-volt system. Home systems have multiple inputs or multiple amplifiers. A retail speaker system with one amplifier with no load impedance problems can work well with many speakers attached to it. Having multiple speakers is key because it helps you control the overall volume of each individual speaker without sacrificing the clarity of the music. In this way, customers are not overwhelmed by the volume, but the music is still more than an indistinct hum in the distant background.
Placing the speakers depends a lot on the square footage of your retail space. Generally, the rule is to take the height of the ceiling, subtract five, and then multiply by two. For example, your business has 15-foot ceilings; 15 minus 5 is 10; 10 multiplied by 2 is 20. Each of your speakers should be about 20 feet apart. Unfortunately, getting this kind of audio fidelity doesn’t come cheaply. Nonetheless, you will make a good return on your investment.
One way to do this is to purchase two or three hi-fi amplifiers, and connect them together in a process known as daisy chaining.
This method tends to work well in coffee shops, because the noise of the espresso machine tends to be exacerbated in the acoustic environments that are otherwise conducive to conversation and work. Daisy chaining allows you to give each speaker its own volume, so no matter where a customer sits, they aren’t deafened or underwhelmed by your music. The way to achieve this is through a stereo amplifier that as a “rec out” ability, which allows you to hook the amplifier out to the input of a second amplifier – hence, daisy chaining.
Once you have decided on your store radio system, consider if is it enough for your store. Ideally, your business will grow and expand, so you may need to move to a new location or develop a franchise. If you have multiple locations, you will want to create continuity in the atmosphere between all your stores or restaurants, which you can do with music, but you may require a different speaker configuration.
Consider working with a commercial music for business streaming service that licenses music with performing rights organizations (PROs) to give you access to the widest variety of music, sound, and even streaming radio, so you can create the perfect feel for your store. Many of these services work with specific hardware, so you can coordinate your streaming service with specific sound system options.
Amplifiers and Speakers
JBL, Bose, SONOS, Atlas, Crown, and QSC all offer the kind of speakers you’re looking for, most of them starting at $700.
If you want to think bigger, a combined amplifier and speaker set will be helpful. Bringing the two together allows you to control the space and volume of your sound output. Conventional wisdom suggests that the volume from one speaker to the next should not be different by more than 10 decibels, and this works well for stores that range from 500 square feet all the way up to 4,000 square feet. Restaurants will especially benefit from this arrangement, but this depends to a large extent on the kind of speakers an owner has. If you are going to go as far as pairing your amplifier with speakers, it’s worth considering spending a little more to get decent speakers that will give your business or office high-fidelity audio. This will minimize the number of audio hotspots you must have in your location, and you can scale your sound equally and effectively.
If price is not a factor, then you can think about investing in an amplifier with digital sound processing, and an audio mixer with multiple inputs and outputs. Audio mixers are also known as soundboards, sound mixers, or mixing consoles. However you refer to them, an audio mixer’s job is to take two or more audio signals, mix them together (hence the name), and produce one or more output signals. An audio mixer is like the conductor of an orchestra, collecting all the individual sounds and channeling them in one direction. The audio mixer filters and optimizes sound levels, adding equalization and other effects to enhance the sound as best as possible. Audio mixers are mainstays at live music events – you cannot have a live performance without an audio mixer and someone to run it – but they are also very useful for recorded music.
In a business, having an audio mixer as part of your setup allows you to change both your audio zones and your volume zones. This is especially useful when you have a large space where you have multiple sounds coming through your speakers, and you need a mixer to balance and stabilize different outputs. In cases like these, you don’t need to have the most expensive speakers (although that wouldn’t hurt); it would be a better investment to buy a better amplifier since this would give you more control over the audio zones in your business or office space.
Only a smaller number of companies offer the necessary hardware when you get up to this level of audio fidelity; Bose and DBX have options that start at $3,000.
Perhaps the most important suggestion in this guide is that you should invest in your speakers more than anything else. Amplifiers and audio mixers are important, and deserve due consideration; but no matter how good they are, a bad set of speakers will let you down. Every business location has unique pressure zones, which impact the volume levels of the music you play, and this can be very distracting for your customers. Better speakers and better coverage maximize the control you have over how the music sounds in various locations throughout your store. Optimizing your music playback gives your customers a better experience, and it helps you create the perfect atmosphere for the general public to enjoy your business.
Using an iPad as a Music Source
Many businesses use an iPad or a similar tablet at their point-of-sale, opting to replace the traditional cash register with a single device that can process payments, and keep inventory and customer records at literal and metaphorical fingertips. But an iPad or comparable tablet can also be a music source; any recognized app will create and play playlists while still being used for point-of-sale transactions.
For iPads, the AirPort Express wireless router is perfect for connecting the iPad to the amplifier, saving you the trouble of physically connecting your music source to the amp; Bluetooth connections will also suffice. This way, you can bring your transactions and music management under one umbrella.
The Rise of Smart Speakers
A relatively new kind of speaker in the market is the smart speaker. These are wireless speakers with a built-in voice control capability. A user activates the speaker with a “wake word,” gives it a command, and the software in the speaker carries it out. The speakers are usually single-unit wireless speakers or soundbars working via a Bluetooth connection. The software is developed as an artificial intelligence by Apple, Google, Amazon, or Microsoft, with other technology brands like Samsung coming up with their own versions. Google Assistant powers the Google Home device; Amazon’s Alexa is the voice inside the Amazon Echo unit, and Apple’s iconic Siri is behind the HomePod speaker.
Smart speakers allow users to request anything from music to local or even international news, from weather to sports, from traffic conditions to flight information, from radio stations to trivia games.
Partnerships with other companies allow users to request cabs or order pizza, and installation into a smart home gives users the power to control their lights, air conditioning, garage doors, and home security system with literally the sound of their own voice.
Smart speakers are big business. A 2016 study found that 61 percent of users liked the hands-free feature of their home devices, allowing them to multitask while interacting with the smart speaker. In 2020, simply being mobile isn’t enough; as of July, 18 percent of American consumers had at least one smart speaker in their homes.
Smart Speakers for Business
Smart speakers may have brought the digital age into our living rooms, but what does this have to do with business? The Lexington-Herald Leader writes that the strong push toward voice search and commands should be of interest to marketers and business owners. It is how we know what customers want, what they’re looking for, and what they like to do.
Using a smart speaker in your business means anticipating what customers are looking for in terms of services and products. Amazon Books, the brick-and-mortar retail bookstore owned by Amazon, not only offers the Amazon Echo smart speaker for sale, it also displays them for customers to interact with, simply by saying “Alexa,” and then giving the device a command; suggestions are often included on cards next to the devices.
This intuitive form of interaction seems harmless, even fun, but it presents a vital point of connection between the customer and the business. This is how, for example, Amazon knows what people want (basic information about traffic and weather, adding items to shopping lists, or playing music), and tweaks its search engine optimization and software fixes to better deliver such results.
The interaction also gives Amazon an idea of who their customers are and how Amazon’s unique resources can best help them. While most businesses don’t have those resources, they can nonetheless use smart speakers to learn more about their customers and then provide the necessary services.
These are not just a few tech-savvy customers. Almost one in five adults, or 47.3 million people, have access to a smart speaker, with even children being included in that market. Missing out on a kind of communication and accessibility that almost 50 million people use at home could be lethal for a business.
Using smart speakers in a business helps more than the customers. TechRepublic writes that the Apple HomePod speaker is great for conference calls and improving employee productivity by allowing workers to perform hands-free multitasking while working with relevant, real-time information, such as stock reports, calendar updates, and even sending text messages through a shared office Apple account.
In this way, an amplifier, a set of speakers, an audio mixer, a smart speaker, and a computer to hold them all together can take your customer’s experience of your business to an unprecedented level of service and access.
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