/ 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?

Jan Caborn says:
14 July 2014

Vote with your feet, we left Morrisons some months ago because of the loud music and went to Sainsbury’s which has no music; by quietly perusing the aisles for bargains, we did not find that our shopping was very much more expensive, and the benefit from lower stress levels outweighed the constant racket which meant we forgot things we needed and almost had toddler tantrums (we are over 65)! B&Q is a nightmare, you just can’t think and make decisions, so, we go to a small independent which is MUCH cheaper and will serve you odd amounts of screws etc – no pre-packed items.

Barbara Slater says:
14 July 2014

Couldn’t agree more. My last trips to B&Q were a nightmare. The so called music was irritating and loud – certainly not background ‘noise’. I can’t call it music. I couldn’t get out fast enough. I used to enjoy a shopping trip but now it is so stressful trying to think over the din that I no longer enjoy it. Whenever I have complained about the noise (in virtually all shops now,) I am looked at by the usually young staff as if I am just an old fuddy duddy. As you say Sainsbury’s is music free and a treat to shop in. Has anyone ever said that they won’t go into a particular shop because they DON’T have music? I don’t know of any but the reverse is most certainly true.

Jeff says:
14 July 2014

I worked in a shop were music played all day, it drove me to distraction!
When I could not concentrate it was highly intrusive and make thinking difficult. The worst was the inclusion of rap ‘music’ tracks in an store catering for more a mostly mature customer base. Totally inappropriate

Really true says:
15 July 2014

There is an internationally well-known, company that has done extensive, detailed research over the last seventy five years or so, on what is the most satisfying and effective music that should be played in restaurants, shops, hotels, lifts, – you name it.
Here are some of their findings for shops.
1. Music should only just be heard, and not distracting in any way. Only noticeable
when there are few customers present.
2. There should be no songs or singing, which diverts the customer’s attention from
concentrating on the business of buying
3. There should be no recognisable melodies.
4. Recommended, as most effective, is something which they call “Salon Music” –
Which are usually the tapes specially composed by their research people.
Go into any public place where music is playing and you will know immediately if this company has been responsible for the ambience.

I know what you mean and it is really awful. The brain tries to make some sense of it but fails repeatedly. Dissonance is an acceptable challenge for the brain but your salon music is mental torture.

Yes, it’s like a film score disconnected from the content – atonal, harmonically discontinous, lacking any melodic structure, and intensely boring. Playing it through a defective sound system in an acoustically imperfect environment doesn’t make it any better. I thought the only music shopkeepers could appreciate was the tuneful ringing of the tills, but that delightful accompaniment has nowadays been replaced by peeps, dings and warbles as the bar codes are swiped and the chip-&-pin machines burp their instructions.

I’m afraid that the internationally well known company is wasting its time as far as I am concerned; I will never accept someone else’s choice of music being thrust into my ears against my will. Music should be freely chosen; it should never be enforced.

It is not so much the type of “muzac” I can tune that out; it is the volume. My local Tesco Express had the volume so high the till operators cannot hear the customers unless they shout.

Agreed, and even the self-service tills have to be cranked up to maximum volume in order to override the background din. Is there, anywhere, a haven of tranquil shopping?

Nigel Rodgers says:
15 July 2014

The many people who hate music being piped through shops may be pleased to hear that Pipedown, the Campaign for Freedom from Piped Music, is holding a competition this autumn to choose the Quietest Supermarket (and quietest bookshop, restaurant, pub chain etc) in Britain. Julian Lloyd Webber and Prunella Scales will be among the judges.

What? Not Brian Blessed?
John Ward – “atonal, harmonically discontinous, lacking any melodic structure, and intensely boring.”. AKA noise (and some pretentious modern “musical” compositions). Why does anyone think it adds to the ambience to play such stuff in the background of anything – shops, films, tv programmes. I must be missing something – perhaps some brilliant researcher has determined that it significantly affects our buying habits or watching pleasure. On the other hand, sensible people seem to think it is mindless irritation. Who is right? Perhaps someone from the retail industry would enlighten us as to why they impose it upon us.
There is great scope here for noise cancellation technology – perhaps the next mass market money spinner.

This is excellent news; I look forward to that.

Noise cancellation works best with continuous repetitive sounds, such as produced by an engine running at constant speed. Even the worst of the mindless music we are subjected to is a real challenge for designers of noise cancellation systems. 🙁

The most effective, and cheapest, form of noise cancellation is an “off” switch. However, we appear to be positively influenced by music.
A couple of studies:
“In the first study, the researchers played, on alternate days, stereotypically French or German music in a UK store selling wines. The researchers found that on the days that French music was played, sales of French wines far outsold German wines, while on the days that German music was played, sales of German wines far outsold French wines. What was even more surprising was that when the shoppers were quizzed about the reasons for their choices, they denied that it was due to the music or claimed they were unaware of the music.”

“In the second study, classical music, pop music and no music were played in a UK restaurant over the course of many nights, and the average spend per customer was calculated each night. The researchers found that more money was spent in the restaurant on the days that classical music was playing, vs on the days with pop music or no music. This study confirms the results of a number of previous studies which have found that classical music leads to greater purchasing intentions and perceptions of affluence. For example, in two earlier studies, classical music was shown to cause consumers to purchase more expensive wines in a liquor store and, played in a campus cafeteria, classical music caused students to think the cafeteria was more upmarket and that they would be prepared to spend more money there”.

I came across another study that looked at aromas in stores – citrus was more influential than lavender. We also endure what I understand are artificial aromas from in-store bakeries and coffee shops (whilst I like coffee, I think the aroma is better than the taste).

So we are manipulated (buy what we might not want, spend more than we otherwise would) through three of our senses. When will someone inject chemicals into the air in areas near particular foods (perhaps expensive, or slow-moving) that will stimulate our taste buds to say “buy me”?

It would be interesting to know, in the liquor store example, whether overall sales were the same or higher when ‘regional’ music was played or whether it was merely the balance between different countries of origin that was altered. I think I would probably would be influenced to buy French wine if some cheeky kitsch accordion music was playing and to buy some German wine if an Oom-pah band was beating away in the background, but I’d probably still only buy the two bottles I intended to get in the first place. Mind you, the German wine they sell in my local Tesco is so awful [admittedly, it’s priced accordingly] that the lederhosen-clad band would have to be there in person together with the dirndl-wearing mädchen to get me to buy any! [Sainsbury’s have an excellent Riesling at £7.50 and no background music.

Thinking of those irritating television screens they have in some shops that come on as customers approach and tell you how to cut onions without tears or about the marvels of the miracle mat and what you can do with the wonder brush, it would not be too difficult to programme musical interludes in the off-licence sections of supermarkets appropriate to the wine and beer regions that customers are hovering in . . . California, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand . . . Nope! It wouldn’t work. Shopping’s better without it.

Tim says:
15 July 2014

Go to http://www.pipedown.info/ for the independent facts as to piped music being more hated than liked and the adverse effects it can have on human health.

To force people to listen to piped music in a situation where they have not come to listen to music to me is discourteous. But that most probably says much about my age!

Clare says:
16 July 2014

Places I hate visiting:
Shopping Malls; I don’t need music to shop, in fact I’d prefer calm, quietness to make my descisions. Why are individual shops permitted to blast out music? I hurry past them!

Marks and Spencer’s Epsom branch; the sound system in the groundflool, Womenswear section has been on the blink for months. The sound quality is harsh, intermittent and loud. The actual ‘music’ is dreary. I have pointed it out to M&S that there is an actual, physical, fault with the sound system, it’s not just the style of music, but got no reply from customer services. ( I’m still of the opinion that having music in M&S gives a poor impression. – very old fashioned, I know.

Staples in general. The music is suicidaly dreary. I mentioned it to a member of staff and was told that he hated it and there was only one track in the loop that was even slighty cheerful.

My surgery. Why?

I wish they would all pipe down!

Although I wish they wouldn’t play drreadful music in M&S stores, I prefer it to their awful promotional announcements. Whoever reads out the women’s fashion notices [which blast out throughout the whole store] cannot pronounce ‘lingerie’ or ‘hosiery’ so we have to put up with constant repetition of “lon-jeray” [instead of “lanjeree”] and “hosary” [instead of “hose-ee-ery”]. I blame America. I should go out less.

TW says:
16 July 2014

It is important to get a grip on this problem since many institutions (shops, banks, hospitals etc) simply copy each other because they believe that if some places have continuous noise, they should also do so or customers / clients / patients would have complained before and must therefore like it.
It is particularly worrying when the noise problem spreads from shops etc to places such as the British Airways lounge at Glasgow airport, where there is now over-loud pop and folky song music. Even if this were acceptable in shops, it certainly is not when people are trying to read, work, talk quietly or even nap in peace between flights. The situation is even worse of course in some hospitals. The trouble is that with more young people being allowed to grow up listening to noise almost all the time, they find it very unpleasant when it stops (the ticking clock syndrome) – until they are forced to become accustomed to silence or rely on their own (hopefully silent) headphones. Those youngsters then become the shop managers, programme producers and lounge designers who give us our present problems believing, thoughtlessly, that it is what we all want.

Shugg says:
16 July 2014

In Edinburgh, not only do we have the usual piped rubbish in banks, shops, whatever, we also have tartan tat shops that put loudspeakers on the pavement blasting out Scottish generic drivel. Feel like “accidentally” kicking them on the way past.

Sue says:
17 July 2014

I noticed that the last time I visited Edinburgh – I thought it was really tacky and out of place in such a lovely city.

ALL music in shops/restaurants/any other public places is annoying… If anybody has so little in their head they they need to fill it with something apart from their own thought, let them wear headphones! I prefer peace and quiet, enabling me to concentrate on the job in hand. Particularly bad is music in places like banks and GP’s surgeries, where I have to shout my private details to the person on the other side of the counter to make myself understood.

I dislike somebody else’s choice of music when I am shopping. It is particularly annoying in a bookshop, when you are trying to read and some annoying vocal music is competing for your attention. Fortunately, Waterstones has now dropped it in many of their branches.

The music in M&S irritates me because it is totally inappropriate. Older people are particularly sensitive to “thudding” music and yet M&S often plays rap music when the majority of customers in the shop are over 50. I once complained to a manager in M&S. “Ah”, he said, “I always think piped music is like marmite; customers either love it or hate it”. M&S wouldn’t dream of force feeding their customers marmite so why do they force feed them background music when they acknowledge that many of them hate it?

I prefer juke boxes to piped music.

It provides me with reassurance that there must be someone, even if only a single person, who actually wants the music.

AvisF says:
16 July 2014

I have complained about the volume of the music in my local Superdrug (great products, terrible shop) and was told that the staff liked it! Oh well, that’s OK then!

At the MAC cosmetics counter in House of Fraser in Reading, the music was so loud that the assistant couldn’t hear what I wanted, and I certainly couldn’t hear what she was saying, so we both gave up.

So who benefits? Shops are obviously paying for something which puts quite a few people off, and frequently upsets their own staff. It makes no sense at all!

Diane says:
16 July 2014

Now I know this sounds curmudgeonly but one thing that I don’t think anyone’s mentioned is that when businesses play music, what’s even worse is that customers and staff alike feel compelled to sing along to the song often in a loud voice. I recently had to endure a customer singing to the song being played and he was totally out of tune, thereby adding to my misery!

I had a pint of beer in a local pub, which is run by the Mitchells & Butlers chain. There must have been six people in the bar and the Deputy Manager arrived to turn on the piped music. When challenged he said that it was company policy to have piped music. He asked if we could hear the music in the corner and we all asked for it to be turned down.

When I pleaded for it to be turned down more I was told that what I could hear was coming from the other room.

Frank Spence says:
17 July 2014

Most people don’t notice background music because they are able to filter it out and stop hearing it: for them, there may as well not be any music. For others it’s a nightmare. Many people on the autistic spectrum are unable to filter out ‘background noise’, and many dyspraxia sufferers are very sensitive to noise. For these people, and many others it can be impossible to visit shops, pubs and restaurants that play music. I’m not aware that anyone has ever left a shop because there is no music but I know of hundreds who won’t go anywhere where there is music.

On Sunday I filled in the internet form for a Sainsbury’s delivery the next morning. This is possible until 11.00 pm. I had had difficulty establishing my pin number, and at 10.30 rang the help line, which is usually very helpful. The lines were busy and for 30 minutes I had to listen to a dreary song ‘I can’t get enough’. Throughout this was interrupted by ‘Thanks for your patience…..” In the end it was too late to submit my order. The next morning I tried phoning again and had the same song. I rang the store who said they couldn’t help but at least they got through to the internet help line for me and someone phoned me back.
Musak is common in most Winchester stores, and to my dismay, the Wessex (Mercure) Hotel. Debenhams, and the more upmarket Beales, also have loud musak. On complaining, I was told the assistants had no power over this. It is up to head office. Worst, is having to listen to Radio 2 at the dentist. At least they will turn it off at my request.

Ah yes, it’s always ‘Head Office’. I have found that if you write to customer services you will get the usual corporate standard reply and you will be ignored. My advice is to find out who is the CEO and write to him or her. We are now able to point to these Which? Conversation pages in which almost everyone is anti piped music, which is a pretty powerful argument in our favour.

Sadly, even if you write to the CEO, you usually get a standard response from one of the “executive team”. This is particularly true of M&S. I would be amazed if Marc Bolland has ever read a single letter/e-mail complaint about loud music in M&S (and he has received plenty!). The challenge is to ask a question to which they have to respond. A useful one is to ask what research they have done to show that their customers want music. So far I have come across three responses.
1 They admit they have never done any
2 They quote research from a music agency (these agencies produce statistics which differ wildly from those produced by impartial researchers)
3 They avoid answering the question
Even if they don’t give a satisfactory response, I like to believe that the question might be giving them some food for thought…

[Link removed. Thanks, mods.]

Dudley Bason says:
17 July 2014

I am tired of music in restaurants. It makes everybody speak louder to their fellow diners and in the end the ambient noise of music and diners shouting at each other is so loud that I can’t hear what others are saying on my table. In the end I switch off

Hi Dudley,
I’m in Australia (Queensland) in fact, however the problem here is epidemic. I’ve never liked excessive noise anywhere. I grew up with a father who screamed and was violent, so the flashbacks I get from loud noise is both mentally challenging and annoying. It’s the boom, boom, boom, and the bang, bang, bang, type that turn me inside out! Play drums and I nearly make it, then hit the cymbal and I’m a suicidal nut case. I’m serious (and caring) when I say that it must send poor schizophrenics and those with anxiety racing for their medication.
My favourite sound is silence at home. When I do go out to shop, I do not mind soft and low, gentle, instrumental, especially rain forest etc. but please, no birds twittering. It has to be so low you can only just hear it, like the wind. Soft piano music is nice. NO words either; it makes other customers sing and I’ve yet to hear one ‘in tune’.
Most shops here now have blaring music and even some have TV monitors, so not only are you subject to the caterwauling, but you can watch it too. What for? Bawling, frantic kids make me psycho too, but they don’t have an ‘off button’, and their parents can’t hear them. Find a coffee shop for that relaxing break (forget it), go to a movie and I’m on the ceiling with the first note (so forget that too), Woolworths screaming at me while I shop, not to forget toilet paper on special, like who would forget toilet paper? Who doesn’t use it?? Well of course I do most shopping on line now.
Oh yes, a comfy chair or two in a shop would be nicer than music.
Thanks for the ear – needed that vent.

I am sick & tired of piped music in shops restaurants pubs etc. I don’t care what kind of music it is I don’t want it. I therefore avoid shops that play piped music & give my custom to shops that do not play it. I also shop on line a lot to avoid this scourge. I am also sick & tired of hold music when contacting call centres. The other day I endured 45 minutes of earache when calling Scottish Power. Why can’t they simply use the ringing tone, its much less irritating & anxiety provoking. Music affects the emotions which I find totally inappropriate in these situations. I find the results of the studies which you have published above hard to believe. It must be remembered that the organisations that carry out these studies skew their results to get the findings their clients want.
One of the worst polluters with muzac is Starbucks at motorway service stations, they actually play muzac OUTSIDE which can be heard half way across the car park. Many service stations are now playing muzac in the toilets!
When is this scourge going to be stamped on?

Sally says:
19 July 2014

Yes, I, too, was a bit surprised to see that Which is quoting from Store Radio for its research. On their website Store Radio says: “Most people would agree that creating the right atmosphere in any retail or leisure environment is key to providing a successful customer experience and a happy working environment. Most people would also agree that one way to do this is to play music throughout your store”. Hardly impartial research!

I too hate music in stores. I have always had pretty good hearing, and little tolerance for loud music of any type, which I find painful, as well as a distraction. In my youth I left concerts, discos and other entertainments that were too loud and now in middle age dont go to anything likely to be too loud, except of course shops. I am shopping in shops less and less, as the variety online improves and I do not have to put up with loud noise in the background. It does not matter to me whether it is music that I like, or music I dont like, if I cant control the volume it is at best distracting, and at worst painful, so like many others I leave.
Marks and Spencers Outlet at Gunwharf Quays sometimes has “get up and go” music so loud in the changing rooms, that you are driven out. On complaining I was told it was the manager’s choice. If shops dont want us to browse we will not impulse buy and they make a great deal more money from me doing impulse buys than buying the things I “need”.
In a branch of Dunelm Mill near Chester, I was told that the volume was controlled by head office! Downstairs I could function for about 10 minutes. Upstairs where the mezzanine floor was near the speakers, I found the items I wanted but had to turn round and leave. Needless to say I did not buy anything.
Bistro type restaurants use “get up and go” music to keep the tables turning over, and I can see their point. However, when trying to decide what £200 dress to buy or which £150 duvet cover will look nicest, busy music is a hindrance, and I will not spend on those sort of products unless I have an environment where I am allowed to think

I wonder if head office at Dunelm Mill plays “get up and go music”? M&S admits that their executive team don’t have to endure it. Even though they inflict it on their selling staff and customers.

We’ve just published a new debate on phone hold music: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/annoying-phone-hold-music/