Retail

Bread, wine, mind control: supermarkets could be using music to change our shopping habits


For the conspiracy-minded who thought supermarkets were playing particular music to influence us to buy certain products – that is, more expensive ones – I can reveal that’s not the case in Australia. Yet.

But the big stores could easily use tunes to change our purchasing habits, according to the world’s leading expert on the subject, who is based at Curtin University in Perth.

Prof Adrian North, originally from the UK, has spent his life studying the psychology of music and how we interact with it in various spaces – including retail stores. His work has made him the foremost expert in the world on the subject and he’s now the dean of learning and teaching in the health sciences faculty at Curtin. His enthusiasm for talking about how music affects us is contagious.

A few months ago I wrote about the unexpected pleasure of supermarket radio in Australia. My parents operate the Friendly Grocer supermarket in the New South Wales town of Robertson so I know a bit about the subject.

Coles is the only supermarket in Australia with its own radio station – outsourced to Nova – and when I asked Lisa Ronson, the chief marketing officer at Coles, whether research showed certain tunes could influence shopping habits, she would not be drawn. “It’s more about Nova having a knowledge of what’s trending, what people are listening to and what’s new,” she said at the time.

North says his research suggests Coles’ use of innocuous and upbeat pop music isn’t part of a dastardly plan to make us spend more. The supermarket giant’s playlist doesn’t fit the bill.

And after nearly a decade of living and working in Australia he’s yet to be called by Coles or Woolworths to consult on using music to increase sales – and, he notes, he would be the person most likely to be approached.

Over a few days in a busy university cafeteria in the late 1990s, North and his colleagues conducted an experiment where one day they played classical music (Beethoven, Bach – the “greatest hits” of classical), another day they played pop music of the day and on the third day they played what we’d colloquially call “musak” or elevator music (sweeping strings and bland beats).

Obviously, the students enjoyed pop music the most, but the classical music made the cafeteria and the students feel special, North says. “We added it all up and we found that people were prepared to spend the most when the classical music was playing, about 20% more.”

British punk band The Clash wrote the song Lost in the Supermarket, but what purchases would their music inspire?
British punk band The Clash wrote the song Lost in the Supermarket, but what purchases would their music inspire? Photograph: Getty Images

Another study at that time found French music led to French wines outselling German ones in a supermarket, whereas German music led to the opposite effect. Responses to a questionnaire suggested customers were unaware of the effect of the music on their choices.

A 2021 study found music played on a webshop had a similar impact on online buying behaviour.

A paper published last year by one of North’s PhD students, Emma Flynn, also looked at supermarket music and buying habits. It found that playing country music resulted in an increase in the purchases of utilities, while classical music, again, had people reaching further into their pockets for luxury items.

Shopping with Cher

A little while back, I was walking the aisles of my local Woolworths. The new episode of one of my favourite television shows was about to drop, and I was having five friends around for a watch-party. I wanted to impress. At least one of the five I had a crush on – I wanted them to know that I knew how to cater.

Already vibing, I got to the chip aisle when Cher’s The Shoop Shoop Song came on. Suddenly I decided chicken Twisties were just as important as cheese Twisties. Cheezels were as important as original Thins. And how could I offer up original Thins without salt and vinegar? They all went into the trolly as I headed to the cheese display bopping along and wondering if it is all “in his kiss” like Cher was singing about.

Cher’s The Shoop Shoop Song sparked a snack buying frenzy for Melanie Tait one day at Woolworths.
Cher’s The Shoop Shoop Song sparked a snack buying frenzy for Melanie Tait one day at Woolworths. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

Wasn’t it possible I was a victim of in-store music manipulation? Couldn’t this be part of Woolies’ plan – to make me buy more chips with their catchy tunes? Could the supermarkets be cluey to North’s research, settling for a diet of the latest pop music as a kind of limbo land between country music and classical?

North isn’t convinced. He thinks it’s simply that the big two supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, are “creating the kind of ambience they want on the premises, which, obviously for a mass retail supermarket, has got to be pretty accessible”.

The musicologist finds it surprising that neither of the big two supermarkets in Australia does much to differentiate itself from the other. Sure, Coles might have a dedicated radio station, but the tunes you hear in Woolworths are from a very similar hymn sheet. (Woolworths did not respond to specific questions when I wrote my Aisle bop if I want to piece for Guardian Australia in mid-September, saying only that it had a “bespoke playlist” for its in-store radio.)

“When you think about how much attention is paid to in-store marketing and signage, I find it so weird that so little attention is paid to music in that context,” North says. “Because I’m sure there is all sorts of research businesses do concerning store layout, and what to put on which shelf, but not a consideration of the audio environment.”

Now, with some time between me and the Cher crisps incident, I did an experiment: if there was something with a fun beat, would it make me buy more biscuits? Reader, the song playing in my local supermarket was a techno mix of Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill. My basket remained biscuit-free.

But I’m pretty sure that if Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was playing, I’d have left with half the cheese aisle. And maybe some pear paste. And maybe a bottle of fancy mineral water.



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