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The Sound of Retail

As music and sound effects waft through the air to allure shoppers, they also help enhance a brand image for retail stores. "You can look away from many things in a store, but you can't listen away from sound," says John Baugher, director of sales for AEI Music Network Inc., a Seattle-based custom music and video system designer specializing in retail stores. "Sound engages a customer's attention all the time. You can look away from video monitors and store signs. You may not notice the fixturing. But sound is always there."

With that in mind, many contemporary retailers are using music and sound to reinforce the brand image created by store merchandising and design.

Sounding out a brand image The importance of branding has grown with the proliferation of consumer choices in the market today, according to Alvin Collins, vice president of audio architecture for Seattle-based Muzak, a firm that helps retailers brand their stores with specially designed music programs.

"If you are going to buy a pair of jeans, you don't evaluate the quality of all the jeans on the market: the materials, the rivets, the stitching and the prices," Collins says. "The truth is, customers often buy jeans at Banana Republic for a lot more than they would pay at, say, The Gap. Why do customers make such irrational decisions? Because they prefer the brand or image of the store where they shop."

The right kind of music or sound can help drive home a brand image or a brand advertising message. To this end, Muzak occasionally works in conjunction with a client's advertising people.

For example, McDonald's recently undertook a promotion recalling the introduction of the Big Mac 30 years ago. Called "Get Back With Big Mac," the promotion features television and radio advertising designed to evoke the era when the Big Mac first came to market. Muzak supports this effort with in-store music programming based on the music in the advertisements.

AEI Music has coined a term for its approach to in-store audio branding: foreground music. The company defines this as music that affects and motivates customers.

AEI clients include a host of specialty retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Bath & Body Works. For Abercrombie & Fitch, AEI's programming aims to motivate active, youthful customers with a sophisticated Ivy League bent.

"We look for music that relates to the outdoors, destinations around the world, and to active lifestyles," says Randy Schlager, the AEI music programmer handling the account. "We tend to turn away from mainstream material heard on the radio. We're looking for great music, but not necessarily hit songs. We select a lot of music by artists who might be known to college students but haven't broken out into the mainstream yet."

The band Hootie and the Blowfish, for example, used to appear in the Abercrombie & Fitch programming. Since hitting the big time, however, Hootie has made only guest appearances during periodic nostalgic revues programmed by Schlager.

Schlager develops new four-hour programs for Abercrombie & Fitch every month, taking into account quarterly merchandising and promotional changes planned by the chain.

Bath & Body Works directs its musical program at a different target market. "Bath & Body Works stores are themed around the idea of a general store," Schlager says. "It is a heartland idea with checkerboard tablecloths on wooden display tables. Fixturing includes wooden wagons and barrels filled with merchandise. The design and merchandise aims at a middle American audience of women in their teens and older."

Musical programming for Bath & Body Works features classic rock with artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to classic Motown stars. Holiday selections include traditional and nostalgic artists such as Judy Garland and Andy Williams. "When you hear this music, you think, this is what I remember as a child," Schlager says.

Once again, Schlager develops a monthly program delivered on a CD. Unlike the Abercrombie & Fitch program, which segues from one selection to another without pausing, the Bath & Body Works program plays individually recorded songs one after another. With this system, the retailer can tap a programming button on the CD player and alter the order of the presentation.

Some AEI clients take the idea one step further by producing CDs of store programs, imprinting the chain's logo, and selling them to customers.

AEI also produces miniature commercials for some clients' products. For example, Schlager developed a voice-over promotional message for a suntan lotion sold by Bath & Body Works. The voice-over ran on top of "Fun, Fun, Fun" by the Beach Boys, which was selected because it was appropriate to both product and store image.

Sound and music can support brand image in subtle ways. In Harrah's casino, Las Vegas, seven retail shops promote various activities available at Harrah's. Designed by the Cincinnati office of New York-based FRCH Design Worldwide, each of the retail shops uses music to drive the point home. One of those retail shops is called Carnaval Corner.

"Carnaval Corner is an entertainment-style delicatessen promoting party food for Las Vegas party people," says Steve McGowan, vice president and design principal for FRCH. Inside Carnaval Corner, a sound system plays an eclectic blend of party music spanning different eras, styles and cultures.

What is an entertainment deli, and what does it have to do with the Harrah's experience? The casino offers patrons a selection of eight restaurants, featuring American to Asian cuisines. Carnaval Corner, with the help of specially selected music and specially conceived deli selections of party food, helps promote the dining experience as well as the party atmosphere of Harrah's restaurants and casinos. In other words, Carnaval Corner and the other six Harrah's retail shops provide a kind of three-dimensional advertising for Harrah's entertainment and gaming offerings.

Music for a mixed audience Mass marketers such as Kmart Corp., Troy, Mich., also have found that intelligently programmed music can help solidify a sprawling, difficult-to-verbalize store image in the minds of shoppers.

According to Dennis Wigent, director of internal communications for Kmart, 4 million people visit Kmart stores every day. The retailer needed to tailor a music presentation to a large, diverse group. "We started by developing a program for our core customers -- moms, ages 24 to 49, with children," Wigent says. "Then we added elements based on research about when other groups of people are in the stores."

According to Wigent, Kmart's core market of moms enjoys adult contemporary music. Because Kmart also happens to be one of the largest retailers of country music, Wigent reasons that Kmart customers enjoy country music. In addition, store research shows that many older customers shop Kmart in the morning and that middle-aged men frequently shop Kmart on Saturdays and Sundays.

"Knowing all of this, we have developed a custom music program that provides adult contemporary music, with special offerings for seniors in the mornings, special offerings for men on the weekends, and a good sampling of country music all the time," Wigent says.

Music Technologies International (MTI) Inc., Southfield, Mich., assembles and delivers the Kmart program over a satellite system.

"This is a tailored music and message program," says Lorraine Golden, president of MTI. "It's something you can't do by playing music from a radio station. Radio stations are in the business of playing hits over and over. That's not what we're doing. We're entertaining customers in the store.

Kmart now has close to 1,800 titles in its program. "At four minutes per selection, if you do the math, you'll see that we don't have to repeat any of the selections," she says.

Kmart reserves about 12 minutes per hour of programming for messages from Kmart and its vendors. MTI sells network time for these advertising messages, and the revenues pay MTI's service fees. "Some of our customers don't take advantage of this part of our service, but we do offer it," Golden says.

Sounds of nature While music combined with occasional promotions tends to fill out most in-store audio programs, some retailers have found that sound effects provide another way to communicate store image.

One example is the recently completed Discovery Communications Inc. Discovery Store located at the new MCI Center in Washington, D.C. In the Wild Discovery Zone, customers hear wild animals roaring and walking through underbrush. In the Science and Aviation Zone, the sounds of airplanes flying across the store create an entirely different feeling for customers.

The sound system comes together in the Discovery Store's elevator, which takes customers on a journey from beneath the earth into the sky. "This elevator has more audio-visual gear than many entire stores," says Dan Goldich, president of Burbank, Calif.-based Innovative DesignTechnologies (IDT), a company specializing in the design and systems integration of audio and video systems, and video walls.

According to Goldich, customers riding the elevator hear audio clips programmed to coincide with the area of the store just outside the elevator. On the lower level, programmed effects re-create undersea sounds such as rushing water and whale songs. Continuing up to the second floor mezzanine, sound effects create the impression of a capsule bursting through the surface of the ocean. As the elevator continues its ascent, music cuts from cultures around the world flow from the speakers. Higher yet, sounds include birds singing and eventually aircraft buzzing past.

"The technical design of the elevator program was tricky," says Goldich. "Because of starting and stopping times, going from one floor to the next takes more time than going up several floors and moving through the range of sounds. Moreover, we had no way of predicting where the elevator will stop. What if someone punches the button for a floor in between floors, while the elevator is in motion? Accommodating all of the possibilities was a complicated programming job."

Adding technology to the mix The Discovery Store's highly designed sound environment and program intricacies underscore another important sound system element: technology. The sophisticated Discovery Store installation required high-end equipment all around. The equipment includes Tannoy professional speakers to bring the audio to life, and subwoofers to augment low-end or bass frequencies. For audio media, IDT specified Pioneer 8000 laser-disc players because of their high reliability, versatility, RS-232 control and four-channel audio capability.

Sound and music technology is just as important as content. "In our work for clients, we spend a lot of time getting the content right so that it reinforces brand image," says AEI's Baugher. "But all too often, clients try to deliver good content over a cheap sound system and lose the concept in the process. It takes the right content combined with the right technology to produce impact."

Done right, audio makes retail stores work better. Although few retailers have studied the connection between audio programming and sales, Kmart has tracked results. "We know that when items are advertised on in-store radio, our sales go up," says Wigent. "As a result, we have little trouble selling advertising time on the network to our vendors. In fact, we usually sell out."

Which is a result that most retailers will probably like.

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