- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - In malls all across the state, the sound of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” can be heard wafting from unobtrusive speakers. Holiday music is intended to make shoppers feel nostalgic, optimistic and generous - all emotions that can equate to sales.

“Christmas music is potent. It’s primal for us,” said Elisabeth Sherwin, a professor who teaches in the psychology department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

She said the ability of Christmas music to evoke generosity and benevolence is significant, and smart retailers capitalize on it to put customers in the frame of mind to buy gifts.

Music is just one of the tools shopping centers use to get customers thinking about opening their wallets, she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/1wg98Ai ). It’s part of a broader marketing plan that includes lights, scents and seasonal activities, like a visit to Santa.

The National Retail Federation predicts that retailers should see customers more eager to buy this Christmas. It forecast that November and December retail sales will be up 4.1 percent this year to $616.9 billion, compared with a 3.1 percent gain in 2013.

But bricks-and-mortar stores are facing greater competition from online sales. Shop.org predicted that November and December online sales will grow between 8 percent and 11 percent compared with last year, potentially taking in as much as $105 billion.

“Retailers have to offer a complete emotional experience to offset what’s offered online,” said Carl Marci, co-founder and chief science officer at Boston-based Innerscope Research, a company that uses neuroscience to study consumer behavior.

“Getting this right is really important for retailers.”

Marci said studies show that music’s tempo, genre and cultural roots can trigger memories and emotions that influence how consumers react consciously and subconsciously. In many cases, music acts as psychological priming - triggering a memory that’s linked to words or objects, he said.

“There is no question that music has a powerful influence on the brain,” Marci said.

At the Promenade at Chenal in Little Rock, the music is turned on right after Black Friday as part of the outdoor mall’s tree-lighting festivities. From then on, Christmas music is standard.

“We’re loud and proud,” said Bethany Siems, marketing coordinator.

At the Promenade at Chenal the music feed is provided by Sound Products Inc., and it’s about a 50-50 mix of holiday and contemporary music so customers and tenants don’t get overloaded on all the Christmas cheer, she said.

“We try to keep it fun, entertaining and pleasant,” she said.

At Northwest Arkansas Mall in Fayetteville, the holiday music is turned on when the decorations go up the week before Thanksgiving. The mall uses a music service that provides a mix of holiday standards that’s played throughout the common areas and the food court.

Church groups and schools performing live during lunch or dinner periods in the food court also is common, featuring everything from mandolins to hand bells.

Marketing manager Rhonda Bramell said the volume of the music piped in is important, and the mall is careful to monitor the music’s level so it isn’t bothersome.

“We don’t want to be intrusive,” she said. “We want to be festive.”

Alicia Easley, marketing specialist at Park Plaza in Little Rock, said that mall’s Christmas music is turned on when the mall Santa first arrives to visit. This year that was Nov. 8.

The mall uses a music service and plays Christmas tunes all day rather than mix it up with contemporary songs.

“We chose to go all holiday,” she said.

Mark Rau, general manager for Sound Products Inc., said modern technology allows malls and individual stores to select from a wide variety of music options that are delivered via the Internet. Options range from classical Christmas music to holiday pop and jazz.

“We can cater to any demographic,” he said.

Kansas-based Sound Products is a division of Mood Media, which purchased Muzak out of bankruptcy in 2011. Mood Media describes itself as offering in-store customer experience solutions, including music, visuals and scents.

For some retailers, the music is the hook that draws customers into the store, but in most cases, the music shouldn’t be prominent. Instead, it should be a subtle influence that a customer barely notices, Rau said.

“That’s why we call it business background,” he said.

The UALR’s Sherwin agrees that music should be used with a light touch.

“It’s not overt, but it changes attitudes and influences how customers act,” she said.

Sherwin said timing also is important. Retailers can suffer backlash if they turn on their music too early.

“You can play the Christmas card too early,” she said. “After Thanksgiving it’s legit.”

At the Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers, the Christmas music comes on gradually.

Jeanette Smith, marketing manager for the open-air mall, said holiday music starts playing in small amounts in mid- to late November, and as the days progress toward Christmas, the holiday tunes become a greater part of the overall music. By Black Friday, the mall plays strictly Christmas music in its common areas until after the holidays.

“We gradually increase it so it becomes part of the holiday ambiance,” she said.

She said the mall chose a mix of Christmas tunes that’s low-key. That allows the individual stores to select music that might be more specific to their clientele without the two types of music clashing or being repetitive.

“We try to get people into the holiday spirit,” she said.

The science behind using music to do that, while compelling, is still in its infancy, and consumers’ relationships with music is constantly evolving, Marci said. Retailers would be wise to study their customers’ reactions to holiday music to come up with a thoughtful strategy rather than going on gut instinct or tradition.

“We all have powerful associations with the holidays,” Marci said. “For some it’s music or stress, others, gift-giving or Santa.”

Sherwin said Christmas music generally gets to most people - sometimes in unexpected ways.

“I’m affected, and I’m Jewish,” she said.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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