How Sound Can Create the Ultimate Retail Experience

By Joel Beckman with Tyler Gray

The death knell for shopping malls was right there in the name. No one called them buying malls, and in the end that wasn’t the allure. And yet, the buying was the backbone of the business model. What we’ve learned from the decline of shopping malls is that experience rules retail. Physical stores have to lead with it. And retailers have to understand that experience is the gateway to buying, even if that buying happens somewhere else, somewhere digital.

Apple gets this. Burberry gets this — they sponsor artists and host performances in their London stores. AT&T gets the idea, too. I helped them design a signature anthem, an Innovation store in Chicago, and a stadium in Dallas, where sound helps guide visitors through every experience and heightens emotions they naturally feel. Sound is the most effective way to lead off any experience, especially with a brand such as AT&T, whose magic often only gets noticed when it doesn’t work (think: dropped calls or failed connections). Sound is the allure and the maker of memories with a brand. It can even remind customers when to buy and reward them for having done so.

But you don’t have to be a giant retailer to appreciate the power of sound. It can help any size brand — or person — get credit for things it gets right. It can differentiate a brand or help earn it attention and a genuine, rewarding way (a tune that calls to mind positive experiences or relevant memories at just the right moment). It can turn a provider of essential goods or services into an entertainment venue. It can help a mom-and-pop grocery grow bigger than Walmart, and thrive in the shadow of surrounding superstores. In addition to pointing out how smart brands such as Audi, AT&T, and Apple use sound to get credit for experiences, this article also tells the story of Jungle Jim’s International Market, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Started as a produce stand in a parking lot in 1971 by James O. Bonaminio in Hamilton, Ohio, Jim’s is the paragon of a family business. The original store in Fairfield, which opened in 1974, now spans six acres. Produce alone takes up an acre.

How did Jungle Jim’s use sound and music to create a real shopping experience; one that entertains his customers while they shop, which in turn keeps them in the store longer?

  • Even when you’re head-down digging for the perfect pepper or cantaloupe, you never really leave the upbeat, unique experience that is Jim’s. It’s entertainment injected into an otherwise mundane chore.
  • Sound creates anticipation from the get-go. Before you set foot in Jungle Jim’s, you hear the noise of an outdoor jungle scene, including the sounds of animals and distant drums. You hear the splash of fountains — elephant sculptures spray water from their trunks in a crystal-blue pool.
  • The sound keeps surprising shoppers. Inside, you might hear “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens on the overhead system. But there’s all different music playing throughout the store, from the sixties, seventies, and eighties stations on satellite radio.
  • Sound creates a narrative arc of excitement and relief. The music is layered in a way that makes it crescendo or decrescendo in different sections, creating a dynamic sonic landscape, calling for your attention at times while leaving you alone at others.
  • Sound makes shopping fun, gives shoppers something unexpected to talk about when they leave. In the produce section, you’re greeted by a human-size, talking, Yankee-accented animatronic ear of corn and a companion stick of butter who crack jokes. In the cereal section, robot versions of the Lucky Charms leprechaun, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, and the Trix rabbit form a three-piece combo — the General Mills Cereal Bowl Band — and they serenade shoppers with pop rock. You also hear Elvis, the pompadoured animatronic lion from Chuck E. Cheese, now repurposed as a mascot in the candy section. And over flute music, robo–Robin Hood welcomes guests to the English foods section from his perch in a sculpted scene of Sherwood Forest.

Jim’s also carves out a few spaces that are meant to be perceived as quiet: the wine cellar and walk-in humidor are two of the quietest spots in the store. The sound there is the calming whoosh of air keeping things cool. Fifty thousand people a week shop at Jim’s. It reportedly pulls in almost ninety million dollars in annual revenue. And no one is worried about Walmart stealing Jungle Jim’s customers, even though there are eight of them within a ten-mile radius.

Joel Beckerman is Founder and Lead Composer of Made Music Studio. Talk to him on Twitter @joelbeckerman.

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