Retailers pump up the volume to help drive up sales

 

Washington

Like a surprise party or a mortar attack, a night of Christmas shopping begins with noise.

On Wednesday night outside Bloomingdale's, it's supplied by the Salvation Army sentinel who uses one hand to ash his Newport and the other to ring his bell.

JinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejingleDoIhaveanythingsmallerthanatwenty?jinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejingleNeedtosaveafewbucksforAuntieAnne'sjinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejinglejingle . . .

The sound registers at 83 decibels. But Christmas gets even louder inside Tysons Corner Center's decked halls in McLean, Va., which makes it hard to think clearly, which makes it hard to shop sensibly, which is exactly the point.

Studies show that noisy retail environments help trigger impulse purchases, and this year, retailers have the volume cranked accordingly. To measure the ceremonial dissonance, you'll need a decibel counter and a little context. A hair dryer huffs at 80 decibels. A lawn mower roars around 90. And in that gap, you have the Gap, where strident in-store music contributes to the bustling sales floor's 81 decibels.

It's disorienting, it's annoying, it's manipulative and it's kinda magical. At the mall, hundreds of melodies spill from hundreds of stores, softening into one great, big, sloppy, endless everysong. Bing, Mariah, Run D.M.C. — love you guys. But the great American Christmas carol is noise.

It rings through the corridors of Tysons, where Brad Pitt, coiffed and goateed like Jesus, stares you down from a dozen glowing billboards advertising Chanel No. 5. You can hear him in your mind's ear, reciting the Dada-Hallmark poetry made famous in a television ad you've endured a kerbillion times since Thanksgiving.

It's not a journey. Every journey ends but we go on . . .

Yes, Bradley of Nazareth. We go on. To the MAC Cosmetics counter in the middle of Bloomie's, where two sound systems are doing battle at 76 decibels. The department store has holiday carols softly flurrying from ceiling speakers, but the cosmetics counter has its own stereo, which means Lady Gaga is sassing eight maids a-milking because she was born this way.

"It's louder when it's busier," says MAC makeup artist Sarah Weinhardt of her counter's stereo. "Or when we like a song."

Weinhardt has the power to turn it up. So does Hami Kandi, a stubbly 19-year-old who spends his days at Sunglass Hut helping other teens pick out the right pair of Wayfarers. On Black Friday, Kandi invited his buddy Fardin — a.k.a. DJ Velocity — to bring in a set of speakers and spin dance records.

"The mall management came, like, two or three times," Kandi says. "But as soon as they left, we turned it back up again."

A representative at Tysons says retailers are asked to make sure their music is audible only inside the store, but no shopping mall in America could ever hope to enforce that rule. Cacophony is too good for business.

"In that state of disorientation and accelerated heartbeat, that overstimulatedness, there's often an urge to just break out and act," says George Prochnik, author of "In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise." "It triggers our whole network of impulsive responses."

But instead of reflexively snatching that YOLO beanie at Spencer's, try closing your eyes and thinking of the mall as a gallery of sonic information. What happens when you try to navigate it by listening? (Just be careful not to stumble into the ladies being threaded at the Perfect Eyebrows kiosk — a few hours of Christmas shopping brings us all a little closer to hearing loss, but nobody should go home blinded.)

And no peeking. You'll notice the hushed stores stand out as much as the raucous ones. The Apple Store hums along at a practical, upbeat 69 decibels. Nordstrom keeps it classy at 68 — until the anti-theft sensor by the exit beeps in rhythm with the Sinatra tune piped in from above.

At 54 decibels, furrier Rosendorf/Evans boasts the most tranquil showroom at Tysons, its racks of mink and carpeted floors eating up noise from outside. Brenda Davis says she prefers working in the back, where the mall's clamor doesn't bleed in. Sitting at the store's front desk, "I feel like I should be in a disco with a drink in my hand," she says.

The vestibule of Garage, a boutique for teens, feels like a nightclub, with music pumping at 83 decibels. Manager Sarah Booker explains that she and her employees "have headsets that allow us to talk to each other so we don't need to yell over each other or the music."

Outside, similar devices prove useless. "WHAT!?" a tween shouts into her cell. "Dad! What? DAD! Text me! I can't hear you! TEXT ME I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"

George He and Sharon Seun stroll past in a daze. They've just exited Abercrombie & Fitch, the most ear-bruising store at this mall and countless others. "It's too loud," says He, clutching his Abercrombie purchases. "We can't hear each other in there," Seun says.

House music throbs inside Abercrombie & Fitch at 86 decibels, plus the entire place reeks of Fierce, the store's signature cologne, which is poured into little vaporizing machines and puffed out onto the sales floor.

Somewhere between courtesy and zen, manager Steve Ruehl says he's grown numb to the smells, the noise, the endless complaints about the smells and the noise. There's nothing he can do. Corporate dictates the music's volume — a volume that's maintained at every Abercrombie & Fitch, coast to coast, open to close, all year round.

"It's actually supposed to be louder than this," Ruehl says in a regular speaking voice, which here, qualifies as under his breath.

The beat won't stop until 11 p.m. when Ruehl closes two sets of double doors and counts out his registers, bringing the night a little bit closer to silent.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sports Simulator / Home Cinema Installation Technician

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Simulation Tec...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Consultants - OTE up to £35,000

£15000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Franchise Operations Manager - Midlands or North West

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The position will be home based...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue