Background Music in Coffee Shops

Background Music in Coffee Shops

Coffee shops are the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant business, but that doesn’t mean owners are swimming in profits. A successful café start-up is a long, hard road that sees many travelers fall by the wayside, and tried-and-true sales techniques are as welcome in the coffee shop as on the floor of the department store.

One proven strategy long employed by coffee shop owners in an effort to increase temptation to purchase is playing in-house music set to a carefully considered tempo, volume and genre, as research suggests it is these three qualities that can influence buying behavior in a café retail environment. 

So how exactly does the psychology of music work on our purchasing brains? And how do the effects of different genres—classical, Top 40, alternative—play out in the coffee shop?

The Science of Music on The Brain
The psychological model that forms the basis of external effects on customer experience is Mehrabian and Russell’s theory of pleasure-arousal-dominance (PAD). Generally speaking, the model suggests that an environment can alter an individual’s mood and behavior (i.e. purchasing decisions) by altering levels of pleasure, arousal and/or dominance through different channels. This can be seen in a well-known 1999 study on the effect of music tempo on customers’ behavior in a restaurant: music at a slower tempo prevents high levels of arousal and encourages a slower pace, allowing diners to linger over their meal and spend more money on food and alcohol, whereas fast music led to a briefer meal and a quicker exit.

Volume also affects purchasing decisions, but not significantly, and the results are gender-specific. In this study of shoppers exposed to loud music in stores, females indicated that they thought less time had passed than actually had, whereas males were largely unaffected. Volume also has significance in age group; younger generations tended to enjoy loud music and shopped longer, while older generations were less enthusiastic about it and shopped less.

Genre And The Importance of “Fit”
By far, the most crucial factor in how music affects the diner is genre. Customers want the genre of music to “fit” the context, as shown in this study of the effects of playing classical music in a wine store:  the perception of classical music’s sophisticated nature led customers to purchase more expensive bottles of wine. Genre can also attract or repel customers based on their profile:  age, race and income level are enormous factors in determining what style of music we prefer.

Music for The Coffee Shop
Given these findings, a café owner’s best approach to music programming may be to start by profiling his customer base. Is she mostly selling to a college-age crowd? A middle-aged demographic? Are her customers a mix of Caucasian, Asian, African-American and other races, or is she located in a predominantly Hispanic part of the city? While people often linger over a meal in a restaurant (and may therefore find themselves buying, say, another bottle of wine), many cafés take orders at the counter, for a crowd that can spend only a few minutes grabbing a cup of coffee and a scone before the next train arrives. These customers might even feel subconsciously annoyed by slower, more relaxing music—their mind is on the train they need to catch, and the slower tempo or feel of the music makes it seem like the line is longer than it is! Likely a successful coffee shop’s best bet (like any business) is to know its audience—and choose music that is sure to please that crowd. 


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