As online shopping transforms the landscape of American commerce, businesses are reimagining the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. While the percentage of sales made online continues to climb, currently hovering around 10%, the majority of transactions are still conducted in person. To keep up with the digital competition, retailers are investing in cultivating memorable experiences by designing retail “destinations” worth visiting. This paradigm shift inevitably compels business owners to consider one key question: what defines a remarkable retail ambiance?
Surveying a diverse group of roughly 1,000 consumers, we asked “What do you most enjoy about retail experiences? We compared our data to the work of leading scholars in environmental design, and our findings confirm just how powerful retail ambiance can be for driving or deterring significant sales volume.
Our research covers a number of dimensions in the retail setting, including music selections, color schemes and staff interactions.
We begin our analysis with auditory stimuli: A business’ choice of playlist can have a powerful impact on purchasing behavior or drive customers out the door, depending on the demographic fit. A quarter of our respondents reported they had left a retail space due to profane or explicit tunes, highlighting the importance of curating playlists that attract target audiences without driving potential customers away. A majority of respondents also indicated that they’d left a business because the music was too loud.
In one oft-cited study, researchers observed that music played at high volumes could move customers through stores more quickly – without significantly hurting sales or customer satisfaction. For the busy business, that high-volume efficiency translates into shorter wait times and more sales. When choosing background music for your space, it is key to recognize that volume must strike a balance between customers’ preferences and strategic business objectives.
If you’re uncertain of your customer’s volume tolerance but still want to influence shopper behavior, you could try a different tactic to keep them moving. In his classic study of background music in retail settings, researcher Ronald Milliman found that music with a swift tempo caused customers to shop faster. Conversely, he found that songs with a slower pace had the inverse effect and caused customers to linger.
Our research indicates that higher-tempo genres like pop and rock were generally well-received, with more than 60% of respondents taking a positive view of these categories. Interestingly, pop was equally appreciated across generations, perhaps because the genre spans hits from multiple eras. By contrast, Gen Xers were especially likely to enjoy rock.
Other genres produced more ambiguous results: Respondents were more likely to say country, Latin, and international music detracted from their retail experience. In many ways, however, genre selection must be tailored to the store in question.
In one 2016 study, researchers found that resonance between music and inventory could drive up sales. Country music, for instance, could increase how much shoppers were willing to pay for utilitarian products, such as tools. Similarly, classical music made customers spend more on items associated with luxury and sophistication.
Many retailers scrutinize the physical structure of their stores, determining which layouts will drive up sales. In some cases, businesses select straightforward setups that optimize shelf space and offer clear lines of sight to the checkout counter. Other stores are divided into distinct areas, complete with their own visual and musical themes.
Our results suggest that however you decide to structure your store, customers will appreciate a clean and clearly organized environment. More than 9 in 10 customers said such a layout would increase their likelihood of making a purchase. Additionally, 71% of respondents said they’d be more likely to buy in a spacious, open environment – an aesthetic pioneered by Apple. These characteristics were important to shoppers of all ages but were particularly likely to make baby boomers buy.
At the other end of the spectrum, just 13% of respondents said retail spaces packed with merchandise would make them more likely to buy. Indeed, experts in visual merchandising warn that putting too many products in front of customers can easily overwhelm them. While we found minimal gender-based disparities in a person’s likelihood of purchasing goods from a crowded retailer, there were generational differences. Almost 16% of millennials reported that retail spaces crowded with merchandise made them more likely to purchase compared to only 7% and 9% of baby boomers and Gen Xers, respectively.
Cumulatively, our findings suggest that most retailers would benefit from presenting a smaller number of products in simple, well-organized displays. While it’s tempting to pack your shelves with merchandise that could catch a customer’s eye, doing the opposite may be much more effective.
Clearly, a business’s staff can significantly influence customers’ purchase behavior – for better or for worse. Moreover, many experts contend that customer service is a key differentiator for brick-and-mortar businesses, offering a personalized experience that online shopping can’t.
Among our respondents, the most important trait for retail employees was a firm understanding of what they were selling. A similarly high percentage said employees who communicated clearly would make them more likely to buy. Interestingly, being personable seemed somewhat less important: Respondents were less likely to say that friendly, attentive, or empathetic salespeople would increase their chances of making a purchase.
Additionally shoppers of all ages seemed most comfortable browsing by themselves: In every generation, most shoppers said they preferred minimal attention from retail employees. This finding confirms other recent research indicating that most consumers are comfortable shopping without any employee interaction at all. But businesses should be wary of a hands-off approach: About a third of shoppers in each generation said they wanted “extra attention” from retail associates.
This polarized pattern of preferences can make customer service challenging. What one shopper considers attentive, another shopper might find overwhelming. Accordingly, a flexible approach may make the most sense: Employees should offer assistance proactively, but back off the moment they hear “just browsing.”
Color theory has a deep history in retail, with experts recommending specific tones for specific business-types. Blue, for example, is said to connote dependability, which may explain why it was the top color choice for men and women alike, as well as for people of all generations. Further explaining consumer preference for blue, a 1992 experiment comparing customer behavior in blue versus red retail spaces showed that blue encouraged consumers to spend more money and do so with less hesitation, likely because it provokes feelings of calm. Second-ranked white, by contrast, implies simplicity or purity – attractive attributes for many businesses.
Respondents were not particularly taken with colorful or bright lighting, with only about a third of respondents indicating that each feature would make them more likely to make a purchase. Our responses suggest that retailers should be conservative when employing colorful, bold hues in lighting design strategy.
As with all our findings, however, business owners should consider demographic contrasts in our data. Most female respondents, for example, said they’d be more likely to buy from a business with ambient lighting. Baby boomers were particularly susceptible to ambient lighting as well.
Some brands have built their reputations on in-store perks: Costco and Sam’s Club, for example, have enjoyed tremendous success with product sampling. Reinforcing how enticing consumers find this strategy, three-quarters said free samples would increase their chances of making a purchase. Female shoppers and Gen Xers were particularly likely to be persuaded by the opportunity to try without having to buy.
Similarly, free nonalcoholic beverages would increase the odds of buying for 61% of respondents. Complimentary alcoholic beverages were somewhat less popular, with 47% of shoppers saying they’d be more likely to give a retail store their business if they were offered free booze. Millennials were most likely to appreciate this perk, despite evidence that this generation’s interest in alcohol is waning.
Despite the rise of influencer marketing on digital channels, the impact of celebrity appearances in retail settings seems relatively limited. Celebrity-hosted events only increased purchase likelihood for less than 30% of respondents and actually turned off nearly 22% of shoppers.
From surprising new insights to confirmation of conventional wisdom, our results give business owners plenty to ponder. But no matter which industry you’re in, it’s imperative that you consider your customers. While we can suggest some general best practices, you’ll need to calibrate your retail space to the preferences of your patrons. We hope our results reveal the tastes of your target demographic, empowering you to make changes they’ll enjoy. By tailoring your ambiance to them, you’ll communicate your attention to their needs – if perhaps on a subconscious level. When your efforts resonate with your particular audience, sales will almost certainly follow.
At Cloud Cover Music, we strive to curate the perfect playlists for all categories of customers. However you decide to apply our results, we’ve got the music to make it work. Most importantly, our streaming service alleviates all copyright liability, meaning you can rest assured that you’re in compliance. When you don’t have to worry about legal headaches, you’ll have more time to focus on what matters: creating the perfect setting for your business to thrive.
We collected responses from 1,012 Americans between the ages of 14 and 87 with an average age of 37 and a standard deviation of 12. Of the 1,012 respondents, 556 identified as women, 454 identified as men, and two identified as nonbinary. Participants identifying as nonbinary were excluded from gender-based comparisons due to inadequate sampling sizes. All data used in this study was self-reported. Music classification categories were based on standards set by Billboard. The term “retail venue” was defined as any enclosed commercial environment where consumers can purchase or receive goods or services.
Please share this project as widely as possible: We hope our results will help plenty of retail businesses succeed. With that goal in mind, you’re welcome to use our work on your website or social media. We do have two requests, however: Please give us credit by linking back to this page and only use this content for noncommercial purposes.