How Retailers Can Keep Christmas Music From Driving Shoppers Crazy

Experts say less is more

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Danny Turner has a pretty cool job. As global senior vp of programming and production for Mood Media, he spends much of his time listening to music, thinking about music and, most importantly, figuring out the best music for his retail clients to play. With Mood supplying the tunes for 570,000 retail locations in 40 countries, Turner knows a thing or two about which songs work and which do not. 

That's why a visit to his favorite Mexican restaurant just after Thanksgiving was so painful. "The place is fantastic—about as authentically Mexican as you can get," Turner says. "But my entire experience was ruined."

Why? Christmas music.

"Not only did they blast the music," Turner says, "but it was the wrong kind of music. They turned their back on decades' worth of amazing Hispanic holiday content with 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.'"

Turner's experience is not unique. After all, this is the season when retailers break out the holiday tunes—and do up the windows, and hire the Santa—for that four-week blitz when many will rake in up to 19 percent of their annual sales. But while studies show that holiday music can get shoppers into a festive mood, smarter retailers are waking up to a more nuanced reality: Evidence suggests that what kind of music is played—as well as how often and at what volume—can make the difference between stimulating sales and literally driving customers out the door.

"Retailers [should] really work to understand who their customers are and what type of purchasing environment they desire," says Bruce Winder, partner in the Retail Advisors Network. "For some customers, traditional holiday music may inspire them and get them in the spirit of the holiday. For others, however, it may be too much and turn them off."

Yes, it just might. A YouGov poll released earlier this month found that while Americans would much rather listen to Christmas music than watch Christmas ads, only 31 percent of respondents said they look forward to holiday music "a lot." An equal number said they only enjoy it "some," while the remaining 34 percent reported they like Christmas music "not much" or "not at all."

And those results are sanguine. A 2011 Consumer Reports survey revealed that 23 percent of Americans "dread" holiday music. In a poll conducted last year by the Montreal-based Research Intelligence Group, 36 percent of respondents admitted to actually leaving a store sooner because of the holiday music being piped in.

Pick the right playlist

Findings like these are leading many retailers to rethink how they sling the holiday tunes.

For starters, some stores are giving more thought to the importance of choosing songs to match the dignity of the store—meaning, if it's a novelty tune, it's probably better avoided.



"It's important to match the vibe of the business—matching the type of holiday music to what the business plays on a regular basis the rest of the time," says John Bradley, chief music officer for Custom Channels, which provides streaming music services to retailers in North America. No matter the store's theme, Bradley adds, novelty tunes are best left off the playlist. "Don't play annoying music," he says, "like 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.' Those songs provoke a negative attitude."

Corin Birchall, a consultant with Kerching Retail, concurs. "You may find some 20-somethings don't want to be listening to cheesy holiday hits in their favorite fashion store," he said. "But they may not object to an acoustic rendition of [a] holiday favorite."

Trouble is, even favorites can be a trap. "We'll be speaking with clients and they'll say, 'We're looking for current pop music,' and that song will come up," says Turner. That song is Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Released in 1994, the monster hit achieved the near-impossible by becoming a contemporary Christmas smash, and it still sits atop Billboard's holiday charts 21 years after its release. But that doesn't mean every store needs to play it. "When you're at the mall, you hear that song ad infinitum," Turner says.

In fact, experts caution that no holiday music should be played too much, no matter what it is. "When you play 100 percent Christmas music, it can be fatiguing," Bradley cautions, adding that if holiday music on heavy rotation doesn't drive customers nuts, it will surely have that effect on employees. He recommends a 60/40 blend of holiday and regular music, even at the height of the season. "If employees don't have to hear a song once an hour," he says, "they don't get the humbug attitude."

Practice "sound management"

Environmental psychologist Paco Underhill, author of the seminal book Why We Buy, takes this advice one step further for his retail clients, advising them to adopt what he calls "progressive sound management." That means not only keeping the volume in check, but matching the holiday tunes to the varying shopper demographics that move through a store at different times of the day and week.

"There's a time to play Sinatra doing Christmas music, the Beach Boys doing Christmas music, and Lady Gaga doing it," Underhill says. "If merchants are just using [the same holiday] tape ubiquitously, it's the same old shit and, I'm sorry, some of us are a little tired of Rudolph."

As a general rule of thumb, Turner tells his retail clients to think of holiday music like holiday decorating. "Less is more," he says. "For as much good that holiday music can do with a brand experience, retailers also open themselves up to creating some potential damage with the misuse of it."

In fact, Turner recently found himself giving a restaurant chain an unusual bit of advice. While the client wanted to play some contemporary holiday music, Turner pointed out that diners would already have their ears stuffed with Christmas carols and holiday pop tunes in every store they visited. "There's value in offering a bit of respite and relief, an opportunity to provide a little bit of sanctuary," Turner pointed out. So what holiday music did they choose in the end?

"What we ended up doing," he said, "was no holiday music."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.