05 July, 2008

Noise costs retail millions

Canadian sound guru R Murray Schafer estimates that urban environments are getting noisier by around half a decibel every year. If that's right, our cities are twice as loud as they were 20 years ago. That feels about right to me - but it's the noise indoors in public spaces that I am really starting to struggle with. I'm 50, and so my ability to extract signal from noise is declining. This ability is called the 'cocktail effect' in the excellent book Sonic Experience by Jean-Francois Augoyard, which lists all the major sonic effects we experience. It's a common, possibly universal, aspect of middle age to have this ability dwindle, and it makes loud public spaces more or less intolerable. The act of pulling one strand from the spaghetti requires such intense concentration that it becomes exhausting. In my experience also seems to be a general increased sensitivity to background noise, especially OPC (other people's conversation). I am fine with a loud film or gig, but many modern restaurants and shops drive me nuts.

This was the subject of the recent piece in The Times by Stefanie Marsh (click here to see it online). I took Stefanie on a tour of some particularly bad examples in London's West End. Representing catering was Carluccio's. I enjoy their food but every one of Signor Carluccio's restaurants that I have visited sounds awful. The cookie cutter design uses no absorbent material at all: hard floors, tables, chairs, walls and ceilings and often box-shaped rooms all combine to create appalling acoustics, so that even at half capacity it's hard to hear your companion. When full, you just have to join everyone else in bellowing. Oh, and they play music on top of the din, which is just adding insult to injury. Probably the worst offender I know in London is Moro in Exmouth Market, where the same interior design principle (ban anything soft) combines with an open plan kitchen and tables about four inches apart to create a dining experience that could only be enjoyed in isolation with a pair of headphones on - and even then you'd need to be playing the Raconteurs rather than Chopin to drown out the din.

Shops are worse offenders in one sense. They may be quieter than Moro but the penalty they suffer from making the wrong noise is so much greater. Few people will complain or walk out of a restaurant because it's too noisy, though many will never go back. Shops on the other hand are far less sticky. Based on personal experience and interviews with many shoppers I believe that many people turn around and leave before they even get inside a shop because of its noise. The eyes are being told: "Come in, hang out, spend your money", but the ears are being told: "Leave at once, hostile environment, not safe".

Shops don't even know they are losing all this business. Most of them now keep their doors open all day, admitting the noise and fumes from the busy street outside and making the first few feet of the store virtually uninhabitable. Presumably this is based on some piece of research showing that people find open doors less of a barrier to entering. But open doors are also less of a barrier to leaving, which is the course of action most people take when they find themselves in an unpleasant soundscape.

Most shop soundscapes are arbitrary. Nobody designed them: they are the accidental results of design by people with no ears, plus music programming that's based on the incorrect assumption that jolly pop music is right for all occasions, plus the various activities taking place and machines operating in the space.

These soundscapes are also incongruous: they work against, rather than with the visual branding.

And finally they are hostile: they cause stress reactions such as release of cortisol or increased heart rate and blood pressure, and so people leave sooner than they would if there were a pleasant soundscape.

Every retailer knows that sales are related to dwell time, especially for more complex or expensive items or multiple-item purchases. In the current climate of reduced high street sales, it's bizarre that most retailers are turning many customers away and truncating the visits of many more with their bad sound. In effect they are shooting themselves in the foot daily, suppressing their own sales with inappropriate and unpleasant soundscapes. This thoughtless practice is costing millions every day. I know that's true because we've shown with clients that we can increase sales by 3-10% by installing an appropriate soundscape. And remember the population in the developed countries is aging rapidly, so shops need to be thinking about keeping older customers happier because there are less young ones to rely on. This means less noise and more clarity: soundscapes that are properly designed with a foreground and a background that go together harmoniously.

The smart retailers are starting to experiement right now, so maybe the antidote to retail recession will be beautiful sound instead of cheaper oil!