They'll be dancing in the aisles

Wise retailers will soon, like Asda, be pumping out music to control the way their customers spend their money. Jenny Knight reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Coming to a supermarket near you soon - the Muzak manipulators. They'll speed you up or slow you down, change the way you feel about checkout queues and, above all, make you spend more.

Shoppers might think they are wise to the wiles of the retailing giants, who waft the smell of fresh-baked bread across the store and position sweets at toddler-height by the tills. But the canniest shoppers are likely to be caught out by store managers who with a flick of a finger will soon use computers linked to satellite radio to manipulate customers' behaviour.

Too many people blocking up the aisles? Get them moving by switching the music tempo to fast. Too few customers? Make them linger by playing music which puts them into a happy trance in which they will impulse-buy and react positively to promotional messages. Impatient customers looking at their watches at the checkouts and shouting: "How much longer"? Put on music they mildly dislike. Psychologists say this will slow down their perception of time passing.

This brave new world of sound control is very bad news for those who already hate tinkling background music in hotel foyers or the martial music that gets commuters striding across Waterloo station concourse at rush hour. The anti-muzak brigade must prepare for a future that will be noisy and bland, but their disapproval won't bother retailers because research shows the average shopper likes middle-of-the-road music, and those who object are in the small-spending, old fuddy-duddy bracket.

Technocrats predict that within a few years most superstores, shopping malls, and motorway service stations will have their own personalised satellite radio stations programmed to influence the customer in ways that suit the retailer.

Bill Becker, president of Cyber Music and Consumer Experience Company, says satellite radio can be transmitted via computers programmed to enable staff to react at a key stroke to different types of customer, giving appropriate music for fast, slow or medium traffic; for the middle-aged customer, the young or old; for the smartly dressed or for those wearing shell-suits.

Asda FM has been lulling 5 million listeners in the aisles in Asda's 200 stores for five years now. Bizarrely, many listeners tune in from as far away as Iceland and Malta on satellite dishes because they say announcements about special offers of baked beans are less intrusive than the incessant chatter of disc jockeys on commercial radio. Trade figures show that in-store radio increases sales of promoted items by an average of 30 per cent a week, with some promotions achieving an increase of above 100 per cent.

An Asda spokesman says: "We want to increase our feel-good factor and reduce stress. The average shopper stays 40 minutes, and we use no more than 12 minutes in every hour for promotions or information. We target our average customer and try to use the music to bring out Asda's unique character, which is fun. We play modern music - definitely nothing classical."

Asda FM has been watched curiously by other superstores trying to assess the benefits of delivering CD quality music interspersed with promotional information. Cost Cutters, Granada Motorway services, and BHS now have satellite radio and Sainsbury's Homebase is about to launch a service. Costs can now be held down by using the satellite for only a few minutes during which a whole day's pre-recorded programmes can be downloaded on to an in-store computer.

Most rivals to Asda FM so far use satellite radio mainly as a music service, wasting its full marketing opportunities in the view of Phil Hampson, of Hampson Sandall, the company that produces Asda FM.

"Satellite radio has enormous marketing and promotional implications," Mr Hampson says. "Customers at the point of purchase are there for the taking. Research shows customers resent the hard sell but appreciate information on genuine offers. There has been a reticence in this country mainly on grounds of the cost of bespoke services - roughly pounds 250,000 a year, but the revenue potential is five times the operating cost."

PPL, the record industry's copyright association, recently held a conference in London which revealed that exploiting the psychology of music is now a sophisticated art. John Love, MD of PPL, says: "Music is a commercial tool of great power and precision. People skilled at programming can demonstrate how their music will make the customer stay longer and spend more money."

David Hargreaves, a psychologist at Leicester University says: "An American wine store played classical music and also top 40 hits. The two types of music had no effect on the number of bottles bought but when the classical music was on, people bought more expensive bottles because they associated that sort of music with doing sophisticated things.

"Music has measurable physiological effects on the nervous system. Faster and louder music is more arousing although if people dislike the music the effect is exaggerated and they dislike it more the louder and faster it gets."

The old days of in-store music where the manager turned on a crackly radio or played a pre-recorded tape interspersed with loudspeaker announcements about tea breaks and cleaners, are now seen as positively dangerous to the retailer's commercial health.

One of the advantages of professionally produced satellite radio, using professional presenters, is that it removes the supermarket manager's power to impose his own naff taste on the customer, instead of carefully reacting to the number and types of customer. The fact that music can speed people up is widely acknowledged. Fast-food chains notoriously play fast music to make diners take more bites per minute. Not all effects, however, are so predictable.

"Most people's perception is that time flies when you are having fun," David Hargreaves says. "In fact, research shows perception of time is related to the number of events you take in during the period, so if you like the music and concentrate on it, time passes more slowly. Music you dislike makes time contract. Fast music makes your perception of time increase. The dilemma for the retailer is, do they want people to like the place or to feel that time is going quickly?"

Minster FM, the York radio station, provides satellite radio station for Cost Cutters. Jon?? Darch, group managing director of Minster FM, says: "Satellite-delivered radio is the sound of the retailing future. It will soon become a must for everyone. The sound of silence is a missed selling opportunity. Customers think this is the right kind of store for me because it plays music I like.

"Satellite radio allows a speedy response to buying trends. If a supermarket wants to respond to a rival's promotion with a new price offer, we can write the script, check with the client, record it in the studio and have it played on air live across the UK as soon as the current record ends."

ASDA'S SMASH HITS

Asda's most popular records are:

r Irish folk music by Daniel O'Donnell or Foster & Allen

r """""""She Wears My Ring" by Fifties star Solomon King

rChristmas medley of carols and songs by Blue Berry Hill

r Rodrigo's "Guitar Concerto"

r Tina Turner's "The Best"

r Wet Wet Wet's "Love is all Around"

Customers often approach Asda service desks asking where they can buy the records. Asda refers queries to a hotline service at Hampson Sandall, the station producers.

"We used to play some instrumental music by General Lafayette as a standby when anything went wrong with the computer," says Phil Hampson. "We got so many calls about it that we told Ritz Records and they got Asda to stock the record and lots were sold."

Hampson Sandall also get letters from British expatriates living elsewhere in Europe, requesting information about records on Asda FM, which they can pick up via satellite dishes. The station is on air 24 hours a day to keep shelf stackers, bakery and security staff entertained.

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