Music in Retail Stores: How to Select Music for Your Business

a single bookshelf speaker: music in retail stores

Have you ever stepped into a bookstore and smiled upon hearing your favorite genre of music playing over the sound system? Perhaps your mood brightened. You might have even browsed a little longer and stumbled upon a book you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. Your in-store experience improved, and if you ended up buying that book, the store benefited as well.

When done right, retail stores’ music choices can drive customer engagement and lead to increased sales. Here’s an overview of music for retail stores and tips for business owners seeking the perfect in-store music.​​

Why should you play music in retail stores?

A store’s music impacts customers’ shopping experiences and can play a critical role in retail business. Research shows that the right background music causes 41% of shoppers to spend more time in a store. That’s more time for you, as a business owner, to showcase your products, highlight special offers, and hopefully increase sales.

Retail store music has attracted academic attention for decades. A 1982 paper by Ronald E. Milliman, a professor of marketing and pioneering researcher of retail store music, found that playing music that was slow tempo in grocery stores increased sales more than fast-tempo music did. Numerous other studies have followed, focusing on music in retail environments ranging from wine stores to clothing stores to florist shops. All the studies concluded that playing music could encourage customers to spend more money, and that different musical choices yielded different outcomes.

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Tips for choosing what music to play in your store

Walk into nearly any store and you’ll likely hear music playing. Here are three key guidelines to keep in mind when choosing the right music for your retail store.

1. Choose the right tempo

Milliman concluded in a 1982 study that fast music seemed to quicken a shopper’s pace in a supermarket. Customers walked briskly toward the items they’d come in to buy and thus spent less time lingering in front of store displays. Slow music mostly had the opposite effect. It appeared to encourage customers to slow their pace, examine more items, and ultimately buy more. Subsequent studies on consumer shopping habits have found that slow-tempo music has the same effect in other types of stores, making it a strong choice for nearly any type of retail business.

2. Play in-store music that matches your brand personality

Consumer research shows that certain genres of music can increase sales at specific retail businesses. A 1993 study concluded that classical music directly correlates with higher wine sales when compared with Top 40 pop music. Other studies show that playing music associated with certain products can prompt consumers to favor those products; for instance, one study found that playing French music in a wine store promoted the sales of French wine, while playing German music boosted sales of German wine. In all cases, avoid music with explicit lyrics or intense dissonance that could annoy shoppers rather than welcome them.

3. Select songs that are new to your target audience

People tend to believe they spend more time in stores that play songs they know. Studies prove otherwise. Notably, a 2000 paper concluded that while shoppers believed differently, they actually spent more time in stores that played songs they weren’t familiar with. The authors surmised that when a store played a familiar song, people spent more time actively engaging with the tracks they knew, thus devoting less of their focus to the store’s offerings. Business owners may find value in avoiding the biggest chart-topping hits, even if they lean into popular genres like hip hop and country music. Lesser-known songs that are true to your brand personality might also help build customer trust—introduce them to something new they love, and they’ll have more reason to trust your taste. 

What are the legal considerations and licensing requirements for playing music in retail stores?

Whether you’re streaming music from a commercial service or playing records on a turntable in your store, you must abide by laws regarding copyrighted music. Typically, this means you need to obtain licenses from performing rights organizations (PROs). The three PROs that govern most popular licensed music are the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI), and SESAC (which originally stood for the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers). You can obtain a license from each PRO’s website. They charge different fees depending on the size of your business, usually ranging from $300 to $500 per year for small businesses. Obtaining a license from each of these organizations will ensure that you have free reign to play the vast majority of popular music.

If you’ll be using a streaming music service, you may also need a license from SoundExchange, a PRO that covers digital sources like SiriusXM and Pandora. Some streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music bypass SoundExchange and work directly with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Consult with your streaming service to confirm whether you need a SoundExchange license.

Music in retail stores FAQ

How frequently should retailers update their music playlists?

Frequently updating your music can provide variety and improve the retail experience for both shoppers and the employees who work in your stores. Some retail stores update streaming playlists daily or weekly. Other stores may only update their playlists monthly or quarterly, but they may use playlists that cover a full day without repeating the same song. You may also want to update your music to match seasonal events, like playing Christmas tunes during the December holiday season.

Is there an ideal volume or tempo for music in a retail setting?

Your music should not be so loud as to impede conversations in the store, but the ideal volume will vary based on the retail setting. A bookstore may benefit from mellow music played at low volumes, which lets customers peruse books before buying them. A clothing store wishing to project youthful energy may opt for upbeat music at higher volumes.

What genres of music are most suitable for creating a pleasant shopping atmosphere?

Retail store music should largely match the tastes of the store’s target market. Classical piano music would be suitable for an upscale fine foods store but would likely be the wrong music choice for a camping store, where acoustic guitar music evocative of campfire singalongs might be a better choice.

How can retailers measure the impact of music on their sales and customer experience?

Retailers can measure the impact of in-store music through sales data, shopping time, and customer satisfaction. In all cases, you can compare the results with the music played during the time of data collection to see if you can find correlations.