/ Shopping

Which shops play the most annoying background music?

Fingers in ears

We’ve had lots of requests to cover annoying music in shops, from radio stations in supermarkets to pop hits in tech stores. So we want to know which shops and music irritates you the most.

A bunch of Which? members have been in in touch to tell us how annoying they find it when they’re forced to listen to music in shops.

I must admit, I only ever notice if it’s a song I particularly don’t like – or if it’s too early in November for me to be able to stomach festive pop.

I’ve got particularly fond memories of Gorillaz’s ‘Dare’ coming on in a clothes shop, and all the customers and staff spontaneously dancing along. But, for me, shop music is generally something that usually washes over me. Or does it?

How music in shops affects you

There have been numerous studies that have discovered that the volume, speed and type of music played does have an effect on a shopper’s behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, loud music makes people spend less time in a shop. If you’re in a supermarket, music doesn’t affect how much you buy, but it does mean you make your way through the store more quickly. This means that the supermarket can get customers in and out more quickly, freeing up space in the car park and at tills, without seeing a drop in profits.

Slower music is likely to result in shoppers spending more time in a store, and thus buying more. And classical music is more likely to make people spend more compared to pop.

But if a shop gets the type of music wrong (the latest pop hits for over-25s, or easy listening for under-25s) then customers reportedly think that they’ve spent more time in store than they actually have.

So, with all this research to hand, which shops are getting their music wrong and what is it that’s irritating their customers so much? Are there any particular shops that stand out for you for their poorly-chosen, too-loud music? Or are you a shop worker who’s being driven mad by the same songs being played on a loop?

And do you feel the same about music in restaurants and pubs?

Chris says:
11 August 2015

At the reception desk of a hospital department, sited at the entrance to a waiting area, MUSIC. I explained politely that I could not think and hear music, that if it was supposed to protect privacy (we were all there for the same investigation) I would just have to raise my voice and that being a hearing aid user noted they did not have a loop. It went off, and stayed off. Must write and thank them.

Chris says:
11 August 2015

Buying petrol at a Sainsbury’s commented on the MUSIC being played. “Wasn’t it Sainsbury’s policy only to have music at Christmas?” and “Doesn’t the store find the licence expensive?” If it had not been so busy would have engaged further, but we did not progress beyond the mindless, “Don’t you like music?” Apparently they always have it on, from a radio on the window ledge.

Sally says:
12 August 2015

“A radio on the window ledge” doesn’t sound as if it’s part of Sainsbury’s official music system! As far as I can make out, Sainsbury’s does only play background music at Christmas. The exceptions are audio departments in the larger stores, and some of the new mega Sainsbury’s stores, presumably because they think we won’t be able to cope with large spaces and no muzak. If the store you were in isn’t a mega store, I would query it with the (relatively) new CEO, Mike Coupe.

Chris says:
12 August 2015

Used Facebook to comment on the Sainsbury’s page and have had response to the effect that the service station manager will be alerted and the matter dealt with internally. Happy with that. Agree it was staff entertaining themselves rather than a change of policy.

Mike Brogden says:
15 August 2015

The radio on the window ledge at the Sainsbury’s petrol station is no doubt unofficial but it’s worth remembering that any radio played in public requires a PRS licence. No doubt the person who brought it to enliven his/her days at the till, won’t be keen to pay the fee.

Mike Brogden says:
16 August 2015

The notion that music played in a hospital reception area provides privacy is nonsense. It’s the same problem at our local doctors’ surgery where the music is said to cover the patents’ conversations with the receptionists. I have to ask the receptionists to speak up as I can’t hear them above the music. And the music is often badly chosen with miserable songs that visibly upset some patients. Even then, the receptionists refuse to turn it off. In the past, I could turn their intrusive TV off but now with speakers installed in the ceiling, I can’t find a way to silence the din. Is there a device like the brilliant TVBegone remote control that would find the audio system and switch it off?

I was in a Nationwide branch last week and noticed how, without music, customers could have conversations with the tellers at normal voice levels and it was impossible for customers waiting in line to hear what was being said. There was a general background noise as customers conversed, the everyday sounds of the street when the door was opened, activity at the customer service desk and staff going about their routine business in the branch. So this excuse that “we have installed music in the interests of customer privacy” is nonsense.

Dave says:
21 August 2015

New reason put forward by RBS for playing music in branches: “starting up non banking conversations”… (Suspect this might not be too popular when you are in a queue!)

My local Nationwide has a big flat screen television on all day next to the counters. When I complained and said it was annoying and also made life very difficult for their hearing impaired customers, I was told that people got “restless” and irritated if they waited a long time in the queue!

I suggested that they open more service points instead. He got huffy and stalked off.

At least the TV’s in the Nationwide branches I use are on silent mode relying on the subtitles stripping across the screen, but even these can be annoying and distracting. When I am in the queue I am double-checking my docs, ‘rehearsing’ my enquiry, and trying to anticipate the inane question I shall be asked at some point during my turn at the counter. I don’t need a newsfeed at that time. I would prefer the Nationwide to deploy our reserves in more beneficial ways and keep the customers calm by serving them sooner.

Brian Bramer says:
27 August 2015

I have been visiting Waitrose supermarkets recently – have noticed apart from the high quality of the products there is no music playing – one can go around the shop in peace and quiet and not be driven out without purchasing half the goods on the shopping list! It does have the downside that the bill is always ends up twice as much as other supermarkets.

What I also like about Waitrose is that the “staff announcements” are not bellowed at high volumes across the PA system and are in fact very few compared with other supermarkets. Quiet service seems to be ingrained in the company’s culture. Even the delivery man doesn’t whistle as he brings in the groceries.

It is possible to have an economical shop at Waitrose but it is hard to resist the temptation to buy superior products. The absence of music and the greater product satisfaction must be worth paying for to some extent!

I was in a branch of M&S recently and they were playing a tune I like. I stopped to listen (can’t shop and listen to music at the same time) but was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it. Then I realised that the reason I didn’t get any pleasure from listening to it was because there was so much other noise going on – people chatting and shopping, noise of the tills, trolleys, etc. This made me wonder why shops play music in this way. Not only are they ruining the shopping experience for people who don’t like music as they shop but they are also ruining the music, too.

Sally says:
2 September 2015

Couldn’t agree more, Emma. It’s the same in restaurants. Often you can’t hear the actual music at all because everyone is shouting over it to be heard. Then, if you complain, they have the nerve to say, “Oh, don’t you like music then?”

Hello Which?
The email notifications must have been out of action for more than six months now; I am starting to suspect a hidden motive! Perhaps you are hoping to cut short conversations in order to cut down your workload? I wouldn’t blame you if that were the case, but the notifications are very useful, so please could we have them back?

Hi Richard! No conspiracy – it broke a long time ago, true. But we’ve been working to redevelop the website (as hopefully you can see!). This includes new email subscriptions – you can now subscription to just get emails with replies to the comments you’ve made if you like.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet been able to carry over your previous subscriptions. This is on our list, but if you’d like to get the emails straight away, please do subscription again by clicking ‘Follow this conversation by email’ and then your preferred option’ when you post your next comments.

Chris says:
7 September 2015

Hoping to follow instructions and start to get alerts for all new comments again.

Meanwhile is there ever going to be a way to see comments from newest to oldest?

Hi Chris, we did have that on our list, where you could sort the comments from newest to oldest, top voted etc. I’m afraid it fell out of scope, but I’ll keep it on the list for possible future inclusion.

Thank you Patrick; your new website is very nice and I look forward to notifications!

Thanks very much Richard. Yes, let me know if you have any trouble. By the way, we have a full FAQ here if you need any help: https://conversation.which.co.uk/frequently-asked-questions/

I don’t know if admin will accept the link; it’s just a humorous comment on people playing music out loud on public transport. We could all use Mr Spock travelling with us.

Jokes aside, is this really so different from being forced to listen to music in shops and restaurants? Isn’t the principle ( and the experience) the same?


Contributors who suspected that the music licence collectors are using inaccurate data, might be interested to know that the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld a complaint (Ref: A15-309437/ER) against them. PPL have acknowledged that “several of the claims are inaccurate as they do not make clear that they relate to a subset of the population that likes listening to music in the particular scenarios listed”. The ASA also highlighted other areas for PPL to consider. “These include potentially ambiguous claims, such as ‘74% agree that music makes customers happier’, which actually relates solely to ‘small retailers’; claims that don’t appear to have any basis in the surveys provided; and those which involve a very small sample size.”

Thank you Dorothy for reporting those rulings from the ASA. Those companies that have relied on dubious public attitude surveys should be required to review and amend their policies. What is so disappointing with this issue is that none of the retailers who play music have acknowledged the distress and in some cases pain that it causes to people with hearing impairment and disability. How do they still fail to understand the requirements of the 45-years old Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, and the only slightly younger Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 [and its derivative regulations]?

I returned a few hours ago from the small Shropshire town of Clun, where I had a bizarre experience. Upon approaching the public toilets I heard music from within; I assumed it was youngsters playing about so I waiting before entering. Eventually I went in; to my surprise and bewilderment there was no-one there, and the noise was coming from loudspeakers in the ceiling. Upon exiting I found several other people outside, all in a similar state of bemusement or bewilderment, wondering what on earth was going on. If I were a resident of Clun I would be writing to the council to ask how much taxpayers’ money was being spent on the music licence; I would not be surprised to find that it is costing hundreds of pounds a year.

Were they playing the Water music, by any chance?

Hi everyone, we’ve invited Action on Hearing Loss, who are planning a campaign on this subject, to write about music in restaurants: https://conversation.which.co.uk/travel-leisure/loud-music-cafes-pubs-restaurants-bars-shops/

Transport for London have released a document that describes what new tube stations of the future might look like.

The report suggests that “pleasant smells” and music be introduced to stations. So, along with more inescapable piped music, we will now have to put up with “piped smells”?

I went with my wife the other day to HMV, now the only store in York with a small selection of ‘World Cinema’ titles on DVD. The ‘music’ was deafening and any discussion about suitable choices impossible. The whole experience was vile as a consequence. The idea of browsing in the face of such an onslaught was unthinkable. Admittedly, we are in our late 50s/early 60s but I can’t believe that many people really appreciated it.

Thank you to my friend Sophia for alerting me to the existence of ‘Pipedown’ – I shall spread the word!

So long as I can remember, HMV shops have always played music because that is mostly what they used to sell but it has become much noisier lately and a lot of the sound is not music as performances by artistes but as sound-tracks for films and games. The internet has done for high street music sales outside of niche retailers and the rest of digital entertainment is going the same way so you probably won’t be troubled by HMV and similar shops for much longer.

It looks as if Hammerson, who manage some of the biggest shopping malls/retail outlets (Brent Cross, Bullring, Bicester Village, etc) are thinking of phasing out loud pop music because so many of their customers dislike it and it is bad for business. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35154100

Music is hardly necessary in shopping malls because the stores have their own “background” music; it’ll be nice to be able to escape back into the mall for a bit of peace and quiet. I hope others follow suit.

Perhaps it’s a special concession to the Christmas season but M&S in Norwich had no music playing yesterday for once. So disappointed – deprived of a complaint opportunity [or have they taken note of customer feedback perchance?]

My local M&S had distorted Christmas music from a small CD player placed on a high shelf, the same as last Christmas. I bought a wooly jumper and left promptly. Tesco did the same the following Sunday.

Sally says:
23 December 2015

wavechange, my Tesco Express did the same thing last Christmas. They were playing Christmas music on an old tinny audio player. The sound was excruciating. I don’t usually complain about Christmas music but I felt really sorry for the staff having to listen to that all day long. When I got home I sent an email to Tesco Customer Services and was amazed at how quickly they responded. It turned out that the manager was delighted someone had complained because he was allowed to turn it off. He admitted the music was being played through a “relic”. Pleased to say I haven’t heard any music there since. All I can think is that stores such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which don’t normally play music, are allowed to do so at Christmas. But nobody is actually checking what equipment they are using to play it. Please complain if it’s distorted, even if it’s just for the sake of the staff.

Hi Sally – Someone may have beaten me to it. 🙂 I called into Tesco to collect a prescription this evening and there was no music – distorted or otherwise.

M&S say that it is very rare for them to receive a complaint about their music, John. Yes, that made me splutter into my cornflakes, too. I was writing to them after a gap of more than 2½ years because, although they had turned it down, they were still playing background music during the 2 minute silence and I felt that was unacceptable. Hope you are right about your Norwich store. I got very excited about our local M&S a couple of years ago when the music ceased playing over Christmas and New Year. Unfortunately it turned out to be a fault in the system (but it was off for 3 weeks…)

I called in to Tesco yesterday afternoon and was dismayed to hear music, quite loud in parts of the store. I made some urgent purchases and then asked to speak to the manager. He arrived and explained that the music was because it was ‘Blue Monday’ – which he went on to explain was the most depressing day of the year. It had not been depressing up to that point.

Debbie says:
18 April 2016

Oh my God. Can I please just mention HOMEBASE and their racket that is seemingly repeated all day long every day, mostly none of it good. I have friends who work in there and they come home traumatised and crying. All staff can’t wait to put earplugs in when all the customers leave. And why oh why do they force the music to be played after the shops close? It’s just torture on the poor staff. God help their mental health.

Gavin says:
18 April 2016

Oh definitely Home Retail Group, without question, which currently runs Homebase. They get their music streamed through from Mood Media, which supposedly is to benefit the customer experience. Yet all I hear are crap song after crap song all day long, does my bloody head in it really does, and the worst thing is there is no escape. Even after we shut we have to put up with it on. Please get them to change it to something less shit, preferably nothing or something with more variety and quality at least. And not just a load of total crappiness.

We can see how awful it must be from the language you use. Luckily our usual Homebase store doesn’t have music so it’s probably a local issue and some concerted action by staff might have some effect on the management.

Background music – good or bad – is a vile phenomenon. It’s not a question of how terrible the music is (though the worse it is, the worse the experience), but having any music at all is a loathsome thing; besides, it is an insult to good music, so why not have SILENCE?

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