The Power of Sound for Retail

Design for retail experiences is a hot topic of conversation, especially as shoppers return to stores for the holiday season, still under the influence of a COVID pandemic. An EY study in August 2020, How Will Brands Adapt to a More Cautious Customer, found that 65% of consumers say they will be more aware of hygiene and cleanliness and 52% will look to use contactless payments to avoid touching things.

Along with these learnings and shifts in the retail experience, one key design element is frequently underutilized or even forgotten, yet directly impacts the overall shopping experience — sound.

Sound can make the trip to a retail store a more meaningful experience, one that encourages a step away from online shopping and back into the world of physical brick-and-mortar…or not. Whether you’re strategic about it or not, sound is actively telling an emotional and functional story about your retail space

Unfortunately, a lot of the sound in retail during the holidays is a repetitive story, featuring overhead holiday music on repeat, fatiguing employees and impacting staff morale. Or it’s a harsh sounding story, with the continuous ringing and beeping of cash registers at point of sale. While it’s a good sign that people are buying, our research shows that the noises and wait time at checkout can cause customers to feel annoyed or overwhelmed with “sonic trash” — the influx of bad sounds that hurt rather than help the customer experience


In fact, Made Music Studio’s research with Sentient Decision Science found an 86% correlation between your reaction to sound and your subconscious desire to return to that experience. So it’s smart to be strategic about what people will be hearing to encourage those repeat visits! Like scoring for a film, sound can guide people to the right truths at the right moment — maximizing first impressions and amplifying the broader experience.

When we step into a store, sound is the first sense to impact our experience, acting as an organizer of our assumptions about a space. Without requiring a visual cue, sound can draw your attention to key areas of interest in a space.

The AT&T Retail Flagship store in San Francisco on Powell Street shows this concept in action. The store is located in a massive two-story historic building boasting a stunning entryway and ground floor. But some may not know a second floor of discovery waits upstairs, only an escalator ride away. To create a sense of curiosity for customers, the team designed an on-brand ambient piece of music, a low-volume instrumental track with no discernable loop, to play from the escalator space, piquing consumers’ interest and drawing them closer. The ambience transformed once consumers got on the escalator, reaching a crescendo upon entering the second floor.

The flagship store’s thoughtful sonic design put the customer’s emotional journey front and center, ultimately heightening the overall experience with the space — and the brand. What AT&T understood is that when curating a soundscape for a retail space, it’s important to always consider the intended emotional takeaways of that space, along with how that sound is best serving the overall experience.

There are four core layers or “ingredients” to consider that will both guide audio strategy and the composition or curation process:

  • Ambient Sounds: Very low-level ambient sounds or a piece of music with minimal elements. Ambient sounds are only consciously heard or recognized when in close proximity to the sound source.
  • Background Sounds: Background sound and music that sets an underlying tone, often to instantly provide a peaceful and calming mood to consumers.
  • Midground Sounds: Music and sound loud enough to act as an aural cue to a consumer, but not intrusive to conversations. It calls attention to an experience but doesn’t demand it.
  • Foreground Sounds: Used sparingly for surprise and delight. It demands attention and drives emotion.

An example of foreground sounds are “brand takeover moments.” when a store aligns all its lighting, video screens and audio into one fantastic show moment every hour across a retail location.

Does a retail space feel different throughout the day? From morning, to afternoon, to evening, it’s not just the lighting that changes — people’s moods, activities and energies also shift.

Effectively using music and sound can help guide these emotional shifts along the way — with the beat, mood, volume and energy of sound telling a story that subconsciously alters how we perceive that experience. This is a great opportunity for overhead retail playlists to play a role in the overall audio vibe of a space.

While many visual or physical experiences are confined to specific environmental constraints, a shift in music and sound can impact the entire emotional takeaway — or the emotion the experience intends to leave with audiences — in an instant.

A busy shopping season can be stressful for consumers as they weave their way in and out of multiple retail locations, fighting crowds and quickly looking to discern what the visual stimulation of signage and wayfinding in the space is trying to tell them. Sound can help soothe this stress and potential anxiety when used purposefully. It can help a retail environment stand out in the marketplace by being a welcoming retreat from the holiday hustle, instead of adding to the noise. With varying audio modes for zones or dayparts driving repeat visits, retailers can increase dwell times and improve employee satisfaction.

How can you capture this type of iconic audio yourself? First, develop an underlying creative brief for sound in your retail location, as first considering the entirety of the space will help ensure a cohesive sonic experience that enhances the overall atmosphere.

  • How do you want guests to feel in the space?
  • Is there a target audience for this space?
  • Is there a story you’re trying to tell?

Common areas to think about are lobbies and welcome areas, transitional areas, high dwell time areas and even digital experiences (and how they tie back to the physical space — sound can be that red thread).

Often the most effective sound is the sound you feel more than outright hear. For when effective audio design best supports a space, it almost disappears into its environment. You don’t notice it as a separate component — you notice its impact only as integral to the larger experience. Let’s bring audio back to the forefront of design conversations and fill our ears with iconic and enduring audio experiences this holiday season!

Kristen Lueck is the VP, Director of Business Development and Partnerships at Made Music Studio, building opportunities to unlock the power of sound for entertainment, brands and people. Over the past eight years she has worked on sonic identities, network rebrands and immersive experiences for clients such as AT&T, Nissan, IMAX, Disney, and Southwest Airlines and supported programs that explore how music can improve human wellness. Her entertainment background saw her as Music Assistant to Paul Shaffer at The Late Show with David Letterman and programming and marketing film festivals in several states. Lueck lives to play connect the dots, using her strategic prowess to draw connections between projects, partners and creative ideas to spark iconic work and meaningful collaborations. She has shared her insights on the stages of TEDx, SXSW, Adobe’s 99U and The Future of Storytelling.

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