Retail Audio

Have you ever noticed the plasma screens and TV monitors greeting you when you are shopping in your local Bloomingdale’s or Eddie Bauer? Have you heard the dance-club-like sound systems in the Junior’s departments at Macy’s or in Old Navy? All of these uses of audio and video technology are to make the shopping experience more tailored to you personally, and are part of the explosion of digital signage.

In the times of the westbound wagon trains, general stores in each town carried all of the supplies needed to homestead and run a business, from foodstuffs to broom handles to guns and ammunition. If you lived in that town, the shopkeeper knew your name and that you liked licorice whips and had a horse with a penchant for limp carrots.

Fast forward… Specialty stores became the shopping mainstay, not replacing the general store, but taking a bite out of the general store’s business. Each proprietor, be it butcher, baker or candlestick maker, knew your name and the name of your kids. Personal attention was the way of doing good business.

Zap ahead further and those specialty stores came under one roof in the form of shopping malls. One-stop shopping for all your needs, whims and desires! The downside being that with all of the additional foot traffic, the personal touch with the shopper was lost. No one knew your name or even cared.

Now, many retailers are using audio and video technologies to help enhance and tailor the shopping experience. Customized content based on location and demographics is being delivered to customers using displays and devices once thought only available to NASA Mission Control: video walls and plasma displays. Demand for high quality audio, propagated by the widespread use of home theater sound systems, has encouraged the use of better quality distributed background music systems and, in many stores, high-end foreground music systems. The Internet and technology revolution of the past two decades has also placed MTV, DVD, MP3, and DSS into many homes in the United States.

Sound, like lighting and other visual stimuli, evokes emotion and can define an environment. The music and sounds in a retail store or restaurant, along with the visual design, set the mood and create a comfortable environment for customers and employees. Many retailers, like Starbucks, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s have discovered that they can increase the amount of time a customer spends in a store or restaurant, and in turn increase sales, by enhancing their environment with a high quality sound system.

To determine a retailer’s needs some points need to be clarified: How are music and other sound elements currently used in the business environment? Will the system primarily be used for paging and announcements? Is a quiet background music or louder foreground music system desired? What are the goals to be achieved from the experience?
A foreground music system might be more appropriate to create a high-energy environment for customers under age 25. However, if the store appeals to an older age group a background music system that creates a more pleasant environment may be the right fit. The function of the sound system, and of course budget, will dictate the equipment required to meet those needs.

The sound system’s performance is also affected by the acoustics of the space. A highly reverberant space with hard surfaces that reflect sound (for example a cosmetics area in a department store) requires special attention to lessen the impact of the sound system on customer transactions. In a department with carpeting and soft goods, attention needs to be paid to the absorption of sound, as there is not much reflection from textiles, clothing, and other soft surfaces. Spaces like this may require additional loudspeakers to provide “even” coverage and sufficient volume.

As with all technology systems, the true success of a “Retail Media System” begins with understanding the system goals and objectives as well as the target audience and then designing the space and the technology. Running down to the local stereo shop and picking up a pair of loudspeakers and monitor does not meet the quality many shoppers have come to expect, and even demand.