It happens, invariably, in November.
You’re walking the aisle of a local grocery store, innocently reaching for a gallon of milk, when it hits you. You’re whistling Feliz Navidad. Or humming Jingle Bell Rocks. Or stifling the irresistible urge to blurt out, “Parum Pum Pum Pum.”
You try your best to snap out of it, but it can’t be helped. Everywhere you go, the voices follow.
At the café, Dean Martin reports that it’s cold outside. At the bookstore, Bruce Springsteen tells you Santa Claus is coming to town. And for reasons you don’t fully understand, Bing Crosby insists you say Mele Kalikimaka.
Every year around this time, retailers bombard us with Christmas music. But what’s the impact of all this holiday music? Given that so many stores completely revamp their December playlist, you’d assume there’s some pretty strong evidence suggesting that holiday music lifts sales, or at least improves the quality of shoppers’ mood. But is there?
How music affects the way we shop
It turns out there’s quite a bit of research indicating that music affects our shopping behavior, even when we’re not aware of it.
Studies show we spend more on flowers when romantic music is playing in the background. We choose more expensive bottles of wine when listening to Vivaldi. We linger in restaurants playing slow-tempo music, which leads us to order more food (not to mention drinks) and run up a longer tab.
Music affects the way we think, feel and act, which has considerable consequences for our wallet. This is especially true in a retail environment. When the music we hear is enjoyable, our positive emotional state colors our impression of our surroundings. We evaluate the merchandise more favorably. We view the sales personnel as friendlier. And the happier we feel, the more likely we are to remain in a store, explore our surroundings, and find something we want to buy.
This is your brain on Jingle Bells
Given that happy shoppers are likely to spend more, playing Christmas music holds a good deal of intuitive appeal for store owners. The holidays, after all, represent a joyous time. One marked by overdue reunions, fireside kisses and a meaningful exchange of gifts. It’s logical to assume that reminding shoppers of the holiday will lift their mood and increase their spending.
But there’s a problem with this analysis: the presumption that Christmas music puts shoppers in a good mood. It’s simply not true. While some shoppers adore holiday jingles, others find them utterly unbearable. And when the sounds we hear in a retail environment are perceived as unpleasant, we grow irritated and seek to cut our shopping trip short.
Why do many shoppers find Christmas music so irritating? One interesting explanation comes to us from the labs of music researchers. Studies show that the amount of pleasure listeners derive from any particular song tends to follow a pattern—one that’s remarkably predictable.
When we first encounter a song we like, we tend to enjoy it more with repeated listening, but only up to a point. After a while, our enjoyment peaks and then dips precipitously. (Picture an upside-down U.) It’s at this point that we experience a growing sense of annoyance with each subsequent playing.
What this means is that if you find Christmas music unpleasant today, beware. There is a good reason to believe you will find it even more annoying next holiday season.
Does Christmas music hurt sales?
So what do the data tell us about the impact of Christmas music on shoppers?
On the one hand, sales peak during the holiday season, which might lead us to infer that Christmas music contributes to more spending. But this is a statistical fallacy, one that conflates correlation with causation. It’s the holidays that drive both higher spending and the playing of Christmas music. Using these data to suggest that Christmas music causes greater spending is like saying that increased ice cream consumption in the summer is the reason more people wear shorts. Obviously, it’s the rise in temperature that influences consumer decisions on both food and clothing.
In an ideal world, we would have the results of a real-world experiment, one that randomly assigns stores to different playlists, allowing us to compare sales in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But for now, no such study exists. A review of the academic literature does, however, turn up a 2005 experiment looking at the influence of Christmas music in the lab, published in the Journal of Business Research.
Within the study, consumers were shown images of a store that was considering moving into the area. While photographs of the store were displayed, participants heard songs from one of two albums: Amy Grant’s 1991 Heart in Motion, or her 1992 album, Home for Christmas.
Afterwards, consumers were asked to rate their impressions of the store. Statistically, the effect of Christmas music was not significant, but a closer look at the data reveals a powerful trend. Compared to those listening to pop songs, consumers who heard Christmas music provided lower evaluations of the store on every dimension, including their overall impression of the store, the quality of its merchandise, and even their likelihood of visiting the store when it opened.
These differences were not small. In fact, shoppers reported being over 20% less likely to shop at the store when Christmas music was playing in the background. The main reason the results were not statistically significant is that the study was designed to test a different hypothesis (the interaction between music and scent), and so the sample size of participants in the Christmas music condition was unusually small (only 15 participants).
How do we account for these findings?
One explanation is that holiday music irritates a certain segment of shoppers. But there’s another interpretation, one that raises the possibility that Christmas music might backfire even among those who find it enjoyable. It’s because it can feel manipulative. Research shows that when we feel pressured by others to think or act a certain way—as we might when stores pressure us to get in the holiday spirit—we become motivated to reassert our freedom by doing the exact opposite.
Psychologists call it reactance, and it’s a phenomenon that explains why pushy salesmen and micromanaging bosses are universally reviled. As humans, we desire the experience of autonomy in our lives, and when that autonomy feels restricted, we instinctively (and often unconsciously) look for ways of reclaiming our independence.
Smarter holiday shopping
The results of a single undersized experiment are obviously far from conclusive. But what they do suggest is that before jumping on the holiday bandwagon, retailers would be wise to first pause and consider the preference of their target customers. What would elevate their shopping experience? The answer need not warrant a charged religious or cultural debate—it’s an empirical question.
As for shoppers, if you want to make smarter decisions this holiday season, the next time you enter a store, take a moment to reflect on the music playing in the background. If Christmas music lifts your spirits, be careful. A happier mood can inflate your impression of a store’s merchandise and cause you to spend more generously.
On the other hand, if Christmas music annoys you to no end, take heart. A grumpy mood can lead you to evaluate products more critically. Instead of grousing about the music selection, perhaps you should continue humming along. The store may be doing you a favor.
For more surprising research insights, follow Ron Friedman, Ph.D. @RonFriedman
You can also read more of his blogs here.