Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Music may be the food of love but it is also a tool for retailers to shape our choices, research indicates. Two marketing professors from CUHK Business School and Hong Kong UST Business School, have found that sounds completely unrelated to products can direct consumer preferences.

The article, by Hao Shen and Jaideep Sengupta and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that when people are deciding between adjacent goods on a supermarket shelf, an unrelated sound - such as a store announcement or music - “can enhance preferences for packaged products located in that direction”.

The professors conducted five experiments to test the implications of strategically placed noises on consumer choice. Even though sounds were irrelevant to the products - in terms of content and their non-visual nature - people showed preference to goods placed towards the source of the noise.

The reason for this, the authors write, is that “an auditory signal cannot only bias visual attention toward itself, but it thereby also enhances preferences for visually processed targets in that direction.” Consumers’ attraction to products located in the direction of these sounds is therefore involuntary.

Reflexive redirection of visual attention can be overcome by people consciously avoiding the sounds, the professors write. Indeed, when the sound is unpleasant or threatening, people voluntarily shift their preference away from products in that direction. However, the study found that unpleasant sounds only lower product perceptions when played for a sufficient length of time.

The professors conclude that their research could be applied by salespeople in discussion with a consumer who is deliberating over two options. “Even if the chat has nothing to do with the products in question, the consumer is likely to end up paying more visual attention to the option that is located near the salesperson and, therefore, will be more likely to choose it.”

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article