Sounds like a sale: how ears affect choice

A new study encourages retailers to use subtle sounds and smells to draw shoppers' attention to particular products, writes Michael Baker.
By · 26 Oct 2013
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26 Oct 2013
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A new study encourages retailers to use subtle sounds and smells to draw shoppers' attention to particular products, writes Michael Baker.

You are standing in the dairy aisle of a supermarket trying to choose between brie and gouda cheese to serve with the crackers at your dinner party tonight. The brie is on your left and the gouda is on your right. Both are roughly the same price. Suddenly, you hear a store announcement coming from a speaker somewhere to your left. The announcement has nothing to do with cheese and in fact it conveys nothing of interest to you at all. It just drones on in the background. It has no influence on your choice of cheese, right? Wrong. If you are comfortable with the sound, you are more likely to buy the brie. If you are disturbed by it, you'll buy the gouda.

For years, marketers have tried to understand how the brain's response to sensory input can influence purchase decisions. Whiz-bang visual merchandising, attractive product packaging, music and pleasant fragrances are all used to stimulate positive emotions and the willingness to buy. Ion Orchard, an upscale shopping mall in Singapore, even has its own range of scents it fires into the common area each day. Mickey Drexler, chief executive of clothing chain J.Crew, once complained bitterly at a shopping centre conference in the US of how a popcorn shop had opened up in one mall right below one of his shops. The smell of popcorn apparently disturbed his adult customers.

Retailers have also tried to use brain science to configure stores in particular ways. For example, some studies have shown that people automatically turn to their right when entering a shop, supposedly because most of us are right-handed and therefore "right-oriented". So retailers often go out of their way to make the displays on the right particularly appealing. The "science" in this case is not completely settled, since other studies have contradicted the right-sided assumption and suggested an alternative theory: that people turn in the direction to which they are accustomed to driving. That means shoppers will naturally turn to their left in Australia and Britain, to their right in North America and continental Europe.

But what about the example of the cheese in the supermarket? Can sounds influence purchase decisions even when what customers are hearing is unrelated to the characteristics of the products they are choosing between? Apparently they can.

Hao Shen and Jaideep Sengupta, both marketing professors at universities in Hong Kong, conducted a series of five experiments to test how people responded to sounds while they were choosing between products by sight only. Their research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research. They discovered a striking pattern: that shoppers found it easier to visually process the characteristics of an item positioned in the general direction of the sound.

In one experiment, the researchers placed a speaker broadcasting a news bulletin on each of two adjacent soft-drink vending machines. At any given time only one of the speakers was switched on. The broadcasting speaker was alternated after every 10 drink purchases. The overwhelming number of people bought their drink from the machine with the broadcasting speaker.

In the words of the researchers, the introduction of sound "enhances preferences for visually processed targets in that direction".

What if the sound is an unpleasant one, though? In that case, the duration of the sound influences whether it has a positive or negative effect on the consumer choice. In the case of the brie and gouda, if someone on your right suddenly begins having a loud but brief phone conversation, you are still more likely to buy the gouda because the auditory input helps you to visually decode the characteristics of the product in the sound's direction.

But if the conversation is prolonged and annoying, the reverse effect is observed - the customer initially turns his or her attention in the direction of the sound but then turns away and chooses the item in the opposite direction.

The authors conclude that marketers "may enhance preferences for target objects by drawing attention to completely unrelated objects and events". In other words, retailers can use imaginative sensory input of all kinds to influence a purchasing decision. The input can be much more nuanced than, say, garish signs.

Retailers need to keep in mind that powerful subliminal messages are delivered by the right or wrong kinds of sounds and smells, be it relaxing music piped into a candle store, or the smell of popcorn wafting into your clothing boutique from the food court below.
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