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What can be really annoying in a retail environment? I’m pretty sure most of us would agree that waiting is close to the top of that list: Waiting at a till, waiting for a changing room, waiting for customer service or waiting for our shopping companion to browse through items that do not interest us. Standing idle and frustrated, feeling precious leisure time slipping away. We’ve all been there!  A recent study shows that 41% of consumers in the UK would leave the queue for the till if the wait was considered too long whilst 76% say they feel retailers should be doing more to reduce these wait times. 

In a busy shop there is only so much that conscientious, hard working staff and a premium, frequently modified visual layout can do to minimise waiting times and the subsequent negative impact on the customer. What more can be done? 

There is an easy tool at the retailers’ fingertips that can have a magic effect on our sense of time – music. 

In truth, this is no secret. This is one of the main reasons why telephone customer services often opt to use music during a waiting period. Background music has the potential to distort our sense of the passage of time, especially if it is well selected, enjoyable music. And – just a note for all the phone music planners out there – as long as it doesn’t repeat all the time! As soon as we are bored by music any transcendent effect wears off. If anything, repeating music is a reminder that we have been on the phone for longer than we would like. 

What is behind the musical ‘time travel’ effect? One of the most influential concepts in the psychology of enjoyment is the concept of flow. Flow is a state of mind where we are fully absorbed in our environment; it represents the perfect balance of cognitive involvement that means we lose all track of time. Colloquial terms for this state include being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in the moment’. 

Flow is often used to refer to a perfect state of concentration, for example at work, but one of the key elements to flow is that we lose all track of time. This is one of the powers of music. 

The music in our environment has the potential to capture lagging attention and to bring our level of concentration up to an optimum level where we are engaged in the present and enjoying our surroundings. One thing is for certain about flow states – they are never boring! If music can capture some of the joy of a flow state then there are clear potential benefits for a retail environment. We are likely to browse for longer and not be so aware of unavoidable service waits. And we appreciate the sense of quality and care that is triggered as a result. 

Evidence for this comes from a 100% genuine Facebook update that a friend of mine put up just the other day. I have removed the name of the government agency to which she referred: 

“Dear _______, If my call is so important to you then why have I had to listen to this poor quality music for over 20 minutes now? I’m beginning to think you don’t care! ” 

A well chosen music strategy can help create a bubble of time where the consumer is cushioned from the inevitable sense of boredom and frustration that is caused by having to wait. No-one likes to be ‘on hold’, but now and again it is inevitable – so why not try music as a way to dissolve the time and create a good impression.