Feel the music - and buy?

Interview with Prof. Dr. Christina Kühnl

From Jessica Stepanek

Apart from the Christmas season, we hardly notice it when doing our everyday shopping: the background music in the shops. Yet it does in fact influence the way the products feel in our hands and whether we make a purchase decision. This surprising conclusion was reached by Professor Dr Christina Kühnl and co-author assistant professor Monika Imschloss, Cologne University, in their study “Feel the Music! Exploring the Cross-modal Correspondence between Music and Haptic Perceptions of Softness“, which is published in the current issue of the prestigious Journal of Retailing.

Prof. Kühnl, what prompted you to take up this line of research?

Actually, it was a combination of three factors: My co-author Monika Imschloss studied psychology, so a topic with a strong emphasis on consumer behaviour seemed self-evident from the outset. Moreover, the topic of multisensory marketing is still largely unexplored and at the time of having the research idea I had just attended a conference where there were many calls for further studies on haptics, i.e. perception through the sense of touch. Furthermore, I was fascinated by a paper on synaesthesia in an online medium. It said that sensory stimuli are perceived and processed together instead of separately. For example, both colour and sensations of temperature are addressed when we speak of a “fresh green”. These three aspects led us to the research question of whether and how music influences our haptic product perception in a shop.      

How did you examine the issue?

During the purchase decision-making process our senses play a major role – in our case, hearing and feeling. We assumed that music played in a shop influences the haptic perception of products. More precisely, that fabrics in a shop, for instance, feel softer to the customer when a ballad is playing in the background. Putting this assumption to the test, we played hard (e.g. heavy metal) or soft music at random to test persons in the campus shop, among other places, so in a real-world context, and handed them a fabric sample to assess how its haptic qualities. A potential customer when making a decision to buy is also influenced by the design parameters of the shop fittings. For us this resulted in the question of whether a soft floor covering increases or reduces the effect of soft music on the haptic perception of softness. For this we varied hard and soft floor coverings in the test situations. Moreover, with our questionnaire we evaluated the influence on the product assessment, purchase intention and willingness to pay of the test persons.

What did you find out?

In concrete terms, we were able to demonstrate repeatedly that a high degree of perceived softness of music increases the haptic perception of softness. This effect only occurs, however, if the products that are assessed are also sufficiently soft, the customers are not aware of the music’s influence and, in particular, are standing on a hard floor covering. Overall, the influence of music on haptic perceptions ultimately leads to better product evaluations. 

What significance do the results have in the marketing context?

We can say that the key implication from our study for the retail sector is that retailers can systematically exploit the effect of soft music in their shops or are already doing this intuitively.   Music that is played in shops can in fact change the haptic perceptions of customers with respect to a product’s softness. But this is only useful if they also sell products for which softness is a key purchasing criterion, such as clothing, towels, sheets or home furnishings such as sofas and seat covers.  

So called “in-store zoning“, i.e. targeted highlighting of specific areas in the shop, for example, with carpets on an otherwise hard floor covering can already be found in fitting rooms. With regard to our effect, however, this leads to the exact opposite: products with soft music are only perceived as softer if one stands on a hard floor covering. Retailers should consequently think long and hard about where and why they engage in in-store zoning with a soft floor covering.  

Many retailers also already use music in their shops but still underestimate its influence on the perception of their products and thus on the customers’ purchase decision. In addition, wares are frequently still packed in such a way that the customers are not given the chance to assess haptic softness.

You said the effect only occurs when the customers are not aware of the music’s influence?

That is correct. Naturally, at this point we also thought about how our results are to be evaluated against the background of consumer protection. Here it is important to stress that the effect only occurs when customers are unaware of the influence of music on their perception. Hence, if required, relevant information on the effect could also be spread by consumer protection agencies.