Stranger Things recently reminded us how incredibly different the standard for the American retail experience was just a couple decades ago when much of social life centered on shopping malls. Recently, we’ve seen a retail identity crisis, with much-hyped DTC brands and big tech giants reinventing experiences off the halo effect of the Apple retail revolution — with sometimes successful, oftentimes questionable, outcomes. And then, COVID dipped the industry into a reality check.
Stepping back, one could simplify retail functions as three-pronged:
The main drivers of these functions are the product, the teams of people who bring these functions to life and the overall customer experience that’s born from it. Experience has always been the main retail differentiator, especially as convenience increasingly becomes a rarified reason for retail to exist. Of all experience levers that go into the design of a retail brand, sound has been the most underutilized.
Yes, Starbucks can create a buzz with 4,000+ song playlists, but most retailers limit in-store music in a way that constantly loops. A common complaint of retail teams is the repetition of such playlists. Can you imagine listening to the same 20 songs over and over, day after day? This application of sound only scratches the surface of its potential.
It’s been long established that musical style, mood and beats-per-minute can affect shopper behavior. “How and where audio is deployed and designed can significantly impact our experiences,” said Lauren McGuire, President of Made Music Studio, a leading sonic branding agency. “We know that there’s an 86% correlation between one’s reaction to sound and their subconscious desire to return to that space.”
Today, retailers have the power to move beyond music and create powerful immersive sonic experiences thanks to new audio technologies, and the creative application of soundscapes that energize shoppers, calm frazzled employees and attract new customers.
Why hasn’t this happened already? Three reasons come to mind. First, immersive sound technologies hadn’t matured to enable seamless creation and deployment of immersive soundscapes at scale.
Second, let’s call it the illusion of “it works, so don’t break it.” Visual design has always been king — we haven’t heard better, while our standards for what we see have been well cultivated since childhood. But one sense doesn’t have to give for another to take more. Paying more attention to design with a higher standard of sound will not detract from the beautiful creativity of visual design; it only makes that neural reinforcement stronger.
The third reason for sound being left behind in retail is exactly that — instead of being an architectural and experiential factor in early creative briefs, sound is usually tackled last. This leads to speakers positioned in the ceiling, oftentimes linearly connected rather than individually addressable and with very little processing infrastructure to enable sound merchandisers to do much. That’s exactly why you’ve probably never heard of a job called “sound merchandiser.”
Wilhelm Oehl, of Eight, Inc. and one of the first designers of Apple Stores, sums it up by noting, “Immersive audio has long been overlooked and never a true peer in experience design. It’s not just the installation and expense that have left sound out of the picture, but equally important is the ability to create amazing immersive content and use it in wildly different locations.”
This is what a technology like Spatial can help unlock. Technology has finally caught up to the potential. Now it’s a matter of overcoming awareness and understanding the potential, considering it in early stages of design and throughout other aspects of a retail experience.
This is when a sound merchandiser can design an audio planogram for delight, memory recall and propensity to purchase. Visual merchandising planograms have been a common practice, and now is the time to apply the same principles to sound. Architecturally, there is little cost differential in smartly placing speakers across 3D layers that seamlessly integrate into the design while unlocking a richer sound-delivery platform. With infrastructural components in place, the magic can really begin to create immersive soundscapes.
How can soundscapes significantly impact the three functions of retail? For example, let’s think of consumer technology retail. Immersive and interactive soundscapes can be tailored to amplify product functionality in a visceral way at the point of exploration and purchase. Trying on a fitness wearable can transport you right to the center of a basketball court mid-game. Or you may try a meditation feature, and your very own corner of the store turns into a Zen garden. In fashion, the dressing room is the ultimate decision-making space — should you buy it or leave it? Unfortunately, most dressing rooms are still either too hot, too bland, too imposing and rarely optimized for getting to “yes.”
Today, the science of sound, and particularly auditory beat simulation, can be utilized to unnoticeably layer onto any soundscape a mental affectation. For example, utilize calming brain entrainment in areas where customers are trying to resolve their problems. Immersive sound in a zone of stress and dissatisfaction can unconsciously reduce friction and allow for a more pleasant repair of the relationship for both customer and staffer. That equally applies to the back of the house, as immersive sound can help team members re-energize, relax or focus.
Finally, as part of manifesting the brand’s spirit, immersive sound can be, just like store window displays or a big event, a canvas for a lot of fun. Bring the spirit of a buzzing fashion runway to the store entrance. Link soundscapes to seasonal campaigns of the moment. Shopping for coats in the summer? Give the brain a little push by transporting customers to a magical ice skating rink. Supplement a stunning visual installation with an equally stunning sound experience. It’s finally possible to accomplish with infinite flexibility and interactivity without breaking the bank. Make the bold bet before it doesn’t sound that bold in a few years.
So where does one start? The first Apple Store was not a giant cube on Fifth Avenue. It was in a shopping mall. Dream big, but tinker slow. Ask, “Where do we need to move the needle the most?,” “Where can experience levers affect important metrics?” and “Of those levers, where can we test and iterate with immersive sound?” Just like anything else, tapping into the underutilized power of sound requires careful alignment with all pillars of brand strategy.
It doesn’t need overthinking or endless meetings, but it does need to be smart. Get architects, merchandisers, product designers and store team members all thinking about one question: How can immersive sound experiences significantly improve what we do? Then give yourself a playground.
Set up eight to 10 speakers across the full three dimensions of a space. Try pre-existing soundscapes and bring in more people to experience the magic. Then wait for the creative answers to flow. See how merchandisers, marketers and public relations people start coming up with ideas. Test a few, then make the sonic leap.
Raja Haddad is a go-to-market leader and advisor for companies including Spatial. With experience in management consulting in New York and tech in Silicon Valley, his projects have included the mobile and digital transformation of the Apple Retail stores, as well as the launch of the first generation of the Apple Watch. In Paris, Haddad helped late legendary designer Alber Elbaz build and launch his smart fashion house and last opus, AZ Factory.