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Something in the air…

By Irish Pharmacist - 30th Jan 2023


Does playing music in your pharmacy have any effect on consumer behaviour, and does it matter what kind of music you play?

The process of dispensing healthcare advice and consultations is now acknowledged as being among the core values of the Irish pharmacist, albeit with a lack of full recognition from health authorities in terms of remuneration. However, when the business of healthcare has been taken care of, patients become customers and the job of the pharmacist or their staff is to encourage people to pick up their sundry healthcare  items at their local pharmacy, rather that at the supermarket or other local store. So, does music in the pharmacy help to encourage or otherwise affect purchasing habits?

A number of companies and institutions have looked at the effects of music on consumer behaviour. Something may cause a customer or patient may feel ill at ease when they enter retail premises, and this may lead them to spend less time than they otherwise might. A number of studies have indicated that well-chosen music can help to make the wait for a prescription seem a little shorter, and can help to create a warmer atmosphere. The same waiting-time principle is utilised when a person is on hold for a telephone service, although this has evolved from years gone past, when Greensleeves played on a continuous loop, much to the annoyance of the caller, therefore having the opposite effect for which ‘hold music’ was intended.


A 2005 study in the Journal of Service Research looked at the effects of atmospherics on consumer behaviour. The authors note that individual consumers exhibit different shopping ‘styles’, with one key characteristic that differentiates them being a tendency to engage in impulsive or unplanned buying behaviour. They pointed to 1978 and 1995 studies, which indicated that between 27 per cent and 62 per cent of department store purchases are unplanned.

However, they also make a distinction between ‘unplanned’ and ‘impulse’ purchases. Based on previous research, ‘impulse’ buys are defined as “when consumers suddenly decide to purchase something they had not planned on buying… and [purchases] are made because of a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buy something immediately”. While almost all shoppers will make an unplanned purchase at some time, impulsive shoppers are more prone to making these purchases than what are described as “contemplative shoppers” who did not report making unplanned purchases.

The authors wrote: “Impulse buying is characterised as an effectively-charged hedonic experience associated with high levels of emotional activation and low levels of cognitive control… In contrast, contemplative buying is characterised by more deliberative, cognitive and controlled processing, generally devoid of high levels of emotional activation.” Background music is likely to have less impact on contemplative buyers, they added.

They also looked at the effects of a scent on buying behaviours. They postulated that if a retailer feels that their customers tend to make their purchases in a contemplative way, using product comparison and information-gathering, then ambient scents may help to encourage purchasing. However, if the typical customer tends to be more impulsive, background music may enhance sales. “In terms of product category considerations, the use of ambient scent might be more appropriate when selling ‘big-ticket’ items such as automobiles or personal computers, as these are frequently bought on impulse,” they wrote. “Music might be more appropriate for items more commonly purchased on impulse, such as some types of clothing, food, and health and beauty aids. The results also suggest that managers should be cautious about randomly combining atmospheric factors to avoid creating a service climate that presents a stimulus overload or cue incongruency situations.”

Scent and music

Lead researcher on the study Prof Maureen Morrin, Professor of Marketing and Director of Business Analytics at Rutgers University, US, commented on a separate study involving 774 participants in a shopping mall in Canada over a period of one month. Speaking at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in 2005, Prof Morrin reported that any type of shopper purchases less than usual when both scent and music are present. This equates to a ‘less is more’ approach, as “this could be a caveat for managers — don’t throw everything you have at your customers,” she said.

Over the course of the month, on different days, slow-tempo music was played and the mall was filled with a citrus scent. Alternately on other days, music was played without the scent, and on some days the mall’s ambiance was unaltered. Shoppers were then surveyed to establish how much they had spent and whether they had made any unplanned purchases. They were also asked subjective questions, such as how easy it was to find items or if they had enjoyed their shopping experience.

The music and scent did not affect shoppers’ mood, but the responses showed that it did influence their spending habits. On average, those surveyed spent $32.89 more on unplanned purchases than the control group if music was played. However, in the presence of a scent alone, they actually spent $8.66 less. But this applied to impulsive buyers and unplanned purchases; contemplative buyers spent around $1 less when music was played, but with the citrus scent, they spent $5.71 more than normal.


In 2015, Pharmacy Times reported that music from the 1950s and 1960s seems to have the best results in terms of encouraging shopping purchases. “Annoying or repetitive music tends to frustrate the staff and create a negative atmosphere. On the other hand, fun, snappy and multigenerational music tends to produce a workplace that helps everyone focus and remain calm,” said Jason Poquette of Pharmacy Healthcare Solutions, who has experimented with using different music genres in the workplace. “The pharmacy can be hard on patients and employees alike, [but] music can soften the blow. As Bob Marley once said, ‘One good thing about music: when it hits you, you feel no pain’.”

Enhancing the in-store shopping experience has become even more important since Covid-19 and the shopper exodus to online trading. By masking the noise from other voices through background music, this provides the shopper with a degree of personal ‘privacy’ as they browse or hold their own conversations with friends or family. Some research has suggested that playing slower music encourages leisurely browsing and helps customers to feel that they have a little more time. Loud music, on the other hand, appears to hasten the customer’s departure. The same principle is thought to apply when people are waiting in line, for example for a prescription to be filled. The wait will feel shorter and less irritating.

Customers may not even consciously be aware that music is playing, but it has real underlying psychological effects.  One 2005 study even suggested that playing classical music in a retail environment encourages customers to buy more expensive products, as it evokes feelings of elegance and high quality.

Another study published in Nature in 1997 went one step further. In this research, different types of music were played in an off-licence — it was shown that when French music was played in-store, people were more inclined to drink French wines. Similarly, when German music was played, more German wines were sold. In the study, the shoppers themselves were unaware on a conscious level of the type of music that was being played.

In recent years more than ever, the online shopping component of retail
sales cannot be ignored

Staff morale

Not only does music seem to enhance the shopping experience and help to encourage purchasing, it has been suggested that it also has an effect on overall staff productivity, morale and focus. A study by DJS Research Agency published in 2013 showed that 77 per cent of business owners said their staff were more productive when music was played in their workplace. But, as above, the choice of music is important — a separate study of 1,000 shoppers in the UK revealed that 50 per cent of them had at some time left a store because the music was too loud or irritated them in some way.

In another study published in the Journal of Marketing in 1990 indicated that different aspects of the music played in-store are important and elicit different responses. For example, low-pitch music is associated with serious thoughts and even sadness, whereas high-pitch tunes provoke happiness. Personal preference in music is also a factor — if a tune is playing that the shopper knows, this familiarity helps to put the shopper at ease.

A 2022 study by researchers in India postulated that while managers may not be able to totally control the purchasing habits of customers, there are simple steps that can be taken, such as combining the window display with an appropriate choice of music. The authors suggest that audio speakers should be placed at the door so that visitors can hear the music that plays inside. This, combined with an inviting storefront, enhances the shopping experience, they wrote.

Shopping online

In recent years more than ever, the online shopping component of retail sales cannot be ignored. A 2022 study looked into this and the authors wrote that their results suggest that while it is not common, playing background music on a website can also affect consumption. “The background music of a shopping site can play a significant role in influencing the experience and behaviour of online shoppers,” they stated. “In this study, we derived a new research model based on the SOR [Stimulus Organism Response] model and explored the effect of the background music on online shoppers through an experimental approach in which a mock shopping website was built. The data analysis showed that consumers’ experiences were more positive when there was the background music, regardless of the theme of it. The background music helps create visitors’ higher arousal and resulted in more positive shopping experiences.”

Communications consultant and Director of d2 Communications Don Delaney told Irish Pharmacist that the value of this ‘feelgood factor’ should not be underestimated. “Research has shown the benefits of music for the shopping experience. It helps the time to fly by while waiting for a prescription. It might even encourage a shopper to try out some nice new scents for an upcoming concert. It can also help maintain a degree of privacy in helping to mask customers’ conversations with a pharmacist or pharmacy assistant.

“But, more than all of that, it’s the feelgood factor. For a start, it puts colleagues in good humour, and a happy staff means a happy business. If a customer is feeling down, perhaps with a cold or flu, music helps lift their mood too. It can also help spark fun conversations among customers and staff, and people get to know each other – and their musical tastes – better. It even has the potential to lead to love across the pharmacy floor! Now if only we could offer a prescription for that.”






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