No Skips, Just Hits

Savvy retailers play music that enhances the customer experience.

No Skips, Just Hits

October 2023   minute read

By: Shannon Carroll

Our lives have a soundtrack.

Sometimes, the soundtrack is by choice—the playlist we put on during our commute. And sometimes it’s by design—but not our own.

Studies have found that music can shape a person’s mood, and over the years, that research has been applied to the commercial realm. Companies use music to sculpt an in-store shopping experience, so that when you walk into a store, each song has been selected and put on a playlist for a specific purpose.

Some stores want to make you feel relaxed. Other stores want to energize you. All stores want to make you willing to buy their product.

C-stores can have particular challenges when choosing music because of their diverse clientele—across geographic regions, dayparts, ages—but that isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to using music to establish a brand identity and encourage people to spend their money in the store … then come back soon.

“The right music makes a difference,” said Bradley Golden, president of Music Technologies International (MTI), which has been providing stores with background music for 35 years. “Having music is very important. And having the right music is even more important.”

Billy Colemire, the director of marketing for Idaho-based Stinker Stores, one of MTI’s clients, said, “Sometimes, it can seem like a really small task to simply add music into our stores. However, the feedback from employees and customers is resoundingly positive. We found a way to be a bright spot in the lives of our employees and customers in a very quick and simple manner.”

MTI works with a number of convenience retailers to ensure that the music playing when customers walk in creates a welcoming, fun environment.

“Stores want the customers to return, they want to brand the sound of their stores, they want to evoke nostalgia in some cases, they want to create a positive experience,” Golden said. “You can really create emotion with music.”

Finding the Mix

To start the playlist process, MTI asks its customers a number of questions: what their target demographics are and how that changes at different times of the day, what their typical store hours are and where their top stores are located geographically, for example.

That’s because a geographical region can help MTI decide what songs to put more of on playlists. For stores with a lot of Latino clients, there might be a number of Spanish songs on a playlist. But even that can vary, too; the music in a Texas store might lean toward regional Mexican (think Tejano), while music in stores in Florida might have more of a Cuban or Dominican flavor (think reggaeton or salsa).

A store’s customer base varies, too, as the day progresses. People coming in during the morning rush might be between 16 and 54 years old—on their way to school or work. Next might be soccer moms or dads. After that, it might skew more toward older men. And so forth. So a playlist needs to appeal to different demographics throughout the day.

After some back and forth, MTI builds out a base playlist.

“That’s the backbone,” Golden said. “That’s the essence of a store’s format. That’s the thing people will associate with the brand. That’s the secret sauce.”

But if, for example, a retailer has locations that are unique geographically or in terms of demographics, percentages of different subformats can be blended into the base format—maybe one country, Latin or hip-hop song in every five.

A playlist generally has thousands of songs on it and is updated frequently because, as Golden said, you need to have a lot of variety. A store’s visitors can be creatures of habit, so you don’t want them to come in at the same time each day and hear the exact same thing—a customer would likely remember that, and not fondly.

“It would be a major faux pas for your customers to hear the same song playing,” he said.

It’s fun. It’s about an energy and a vibe and being happy.”

All of MTI’s music is fully licensed—it chooses not to play what’s called buy-out or royalty-free music—and the company tries to make its options deeper than just the hits. But they still try to target artists the company knows are popular, which, right now, Golden said, include Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Imagine Dragons, Pink, Beyonce, Dua Lipa, Harry Styles and Luke Combs.

“We try and keep things current because, especially in the convenience store industry, there’s a huge element of a younger demographic,” Golden said.

In general, MTI looks at radio play and Billboard charts to figure out what people might want to hear. Pop music dominates because it emphasizes energy and tempo, but country and R&B artists with crossover appeal get plenty of airtime.

Stores need to be careful because some popular songs geared toward Gen Zers are more risqué or profane. MTI has people on staff who monitor language and subject matter, including in foreign languages, such as Spanish.

Stinker Stores focuses on upbeat music its customers and employees will really enjoy or sing along to. While Colemire doesn’t have any hard data to demonstrate that music has helped with sales, he said it does “from an anecdotal experience, at least.”

“Music is a form of media that already resonates with so many of our customers and employees,” Colemire said. “We chose to prioritize music within our stores to create a more comfortable shopping and working experience.”

Stinker Stores has fun with the music, too. It started a Summer Lovin’ promo in early July that ends in late September and worked with MTI to loop in many songs from “Grease” to “create a more immersive shopping experience,” Colemire said.

‘People Dancing All the Time’

Music is also a priority at Gilbert, Arizona-based c-store Air Guitar. In fact, music is really at the heart of the business. Eric Seitz and Craig DeMarco couldn’t come up with a name for this venture. While they were driving together, Seitz started strumming an imaginary guitar. DeMarco’s wife, Kris, looked at the two men and said, “There’s your name.”

While it’s the first venture for the two together, neither is a stranger to the retail world. DeMarco has 26 restaurants, while Seitz runs Bro Retail Group, which operates 21 c-stores at Chevrons across Arizona. Because music is such a big part of their lives and their friendship, Air Guitar’s playlist had to rock.

For the store’s music, Seitz creates playlists using the app Rockbot, which claims to have over 18 million songs licensed for businesses. The app has different settings—AirGuitar primarily focuses on its modern rock and classic rock offerings—and takes all the explicit language out. That rock music is then played on the store’s four subwoofers and 18 speakers inside and outside the store. The volume can be adjusted over three zones of the store depending on traffic.

“We can have a huge concert if we want to,” Seitz said. “We like it really loud, to the point where I want a couple of people to go, ‘Wow, it’s really loud.’ It’s fun. It’s about an energy and a vibe and being happy. And if you’ve got great, loud music playing, it’s hard to be upset.”

Amazing music experiences don’t happen on shuffle.”

Air Guitar focuses on daypart, as well. The music starts a little more chill in the morning, then picks up as the day goes along. Although, Seitz and DeMarco have things set up so there’s not a lot of mellow music.

“We have people dancing all the time,” Seitz said. “Have you ever seen somebody unhappy air guitaring? … When you have great music playing, it’s really hard to have a bad moment.”

Making sure employees stay sane is a priority, so no song gets played more than once a day, and playlists get changed every month or so.

Likewise, Stinker Stores typically alternates among a few different playlists each quarter and gives its stores the ability to choose among them to make sure everyone has a comfortable working environment.

Variety Rules

There have long been different philosophies when it comes to in-store music. An influential 1982 study by marketing professor Ronald E. Milliman concluded that a song’s tempo could change shoppers’ behavior—get them to walk more slowly and spend time in a store’s aisles, for example, significantly affecting sales.

Today, different retailers have different ways of creating their brand’s sound. Trader Joe’s stores typically play music, but the genre or radio station is chosen by each individual store. One of MTI’s customers, a jewelry retailer, makes it a point to ensure none of its playlists have any breakup songs. Some companies blend music with store ads to give shoppers a mood boost and inform them about new products and sales. Other stores, such as no-frills Aldi, play no music in order to save money.

But regardless of what is—or isn’t—playing when you walk into a store, that choice was almost certainly intentional.

In-store music used to be synonymous with the company Muzak, which became known in the 1960s and 1970s for its elevator music approach. But that changed in the 1980s when the company began to focus on licensing original recordings and included vocal music. Muzak is now owned by Mood Media, which works with clients such as T-Mobile, Marriott and Mercedes-Benz.

Danny Turner, Mood Media’s global SVP of creative programming, said curating an ideal playlist for a c-store is an “intricate” process because, while the target market is broad, “that doesn’t mean anything goes.”

“Amazing music experiences don’t happen on shuffle,” Turner said.

Before customers notice the employees, the signs, the lighting, the products, they are listening to what’s playing.

He said “dwell time” in a c-store is considerably less than in a grocery store, and a c-store environment “is driven and purposeful.”

“A one-size musical shoe does not fit all,” Turner said. “Understanding the key differentiators between business types is critical to creating a resonating music program.”

For example, he said, a restaurant might want to create an intimate experience, mask conversations at other tables or hide kitchen noise. A boutique or spa might want to maintain a consistent energy. And a c-store or quick-service restaurant might want upbeat, exciting and familiar music that will create energy.

“Some data points do demonstrate the importance of regionalization,” Turner said. “But many of those hard-wired borders are now being eliminated by technology. … For example, country music is enjoying an explosive discovery right now in the U.K.”

Other things to think about are how much you want a playlist weighted toward popular songs or toward songs your customers can discover through you. You want to think about the kind of energy you’re trying to create at different dayparts. “Think about how your energy levels change throughout the day and imagine the accompanying musical soundtrack,” Turner said.

Turner likes to surprise and delight listeners.

“Think of that moment at a club, lounge, wedding or concert where the artist throws you a creative curveball, gives you that oh-no-you-didn’t kind of experience,” Turner said, whether that song is a cover of a classic or something someone likely hasn’t heard in years. “The best thing is watching the actions, faces and expressions of customers and associates when listening to music. You can always tell if you’re hitting the mark.”

Music is often the first thing someone notices when they walk into a store. Before customers notice the employees, the signs, the lighting, the products, they are listening to what’s playing.

“The right music matters. A lot,” Turner said. “The music ultimately speaks more loudly than anything else.”

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