I was thinking about background music in stores this week as I made my way in to work, and after tweeting about it, found that I’m not the only one who is curious, so I thought I’d put together a little more information on the subject.
When I first walk into a new cafe, part of the experience that I’m trying to take in is the background music. In some places, it’s so quiet as to be unnoticeable. In others, it is noteworthy, but adds to the overall mood of the venue: the cafe has a sense of life to it. It doesn’t have to be “fast and loud” (though thanks for the suggestion ishan) but too slow tends to make a venue seem less likely to provide a valuable caffeine hit (ah, the days when I used to drink caffeinated coffee).
I’m going to leave to one side the idea of having live music in a cafe (sorry @schel): while this could be possible for short stints, or very select groups of cafes, most are going to have a turntable, CD-player or iPod hooked up to a speaker system to provide their background music.
This is a combination of my own experience and some quick searches to see what has been written. Trying to choose background music for a cafe is different to other retail segments: in many retail environments, the longer you keep customers in your store, the more likely they are to buy.
With a cafe, you want customers to feel welcome and comfortable, but then you want them to leave – and come back another day. A customer who stays all day is one who ends up costing you the business of the next customer who should have been in that seat. Perhaps most relevant to choosing background music for a cafe is this:
“If you want to speed up customer turnaround, the easiest way is to play music that changes in tempo, that sounds very busy, that includes a lot of brass instruments.” – Alex Petridis, Guardian, 2002
More high-brow research was conducted in 1999 – The Effects of Background Music on Consumer Responses in a High-end Supermarket; you would have to buy the report to read it, but it appears to have been summarised by this in-store music company website as a sales piece. In a retail environment, slower music (and keeping the tempo consistent) is better: customers become more contemplative, spend more time in the store, and buy more.
A commenter on a blog post from 2004 about background music says
The main purpose of background music in a restaurant is to create privacy for guests. If it’s at the right volume, you can still talk over it comfortably but don’t feel like you’re sharing your conversation with guests at adjacent tables.
While the background music is useful in setting the tone of a cafe as you first walk in, for those who are staying longer, it provides a point of contrast and distraction from the conversations of those around them. Having the volume of the music exactly right is important here. Too loud, and people begin shouting: too soft, and it provides no value to your cafe.
I would say that the best approach for cafe background music is to choose tracks that are to the taste of your target demographic, but to vary the tempo and instrumentation enough that people don’t get too settled in the cafe and feel compelled to stay there all day. If you have people from different demographics at different times of day, then you might like to have separate play-lists for each demographic, and change it over as appropriate. For volume, you’ll want something that is competing with the noise of the cafe (grinder, juicer), but still allows for softly-spoken customers to order their coffees, and doesn’t interfere with customer conversations. It will be worth thinking about how best to arrange speakers (and how many to have) to make sure this works the best it can.
What are your thoughts on background music in cafes?