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Sound business: listen up retailers

Julian Treasure challenges retailers to discover what their business sounds like.

"Walk in, close your eyes and just listen," says the one-time British rock drummer turned audio evangelist. "Does it sound like your brand?"

More often they hear mindless music piped through a cheesy sound system, crashing shopping carts, loud beeps, clanging dishes, a constant whoosh barreling from refrigeration exhaust and the roar of voices reverberating as loud as a crowd shouting in their face.

Surprisingly, retailers lavish millions in how their businesses look, smell and even taste to shoppers, but overlook sound. Shoppers cannot close their ears, so the human brain has learned to tune out annoying sounds. The audio assaults, however, subconsciously make heart rates and stress levels jump and jangled shoppers cut a trip short.

"Supermarkets are usually a disaster," said Treasure, chief executive of the Sound Agency and a three-time TED conference presenter. "No wonder people find food shopping a chore. There's so much noise a lot of them just want to get out."

Treasure, 54, won converts addressing 60 top-tier retail executives from 55 companies at a Global Retail Marketing Association conference last week at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel.

"Sound design has become a big deal," said Tom Lamb, senior vice president of marketing at Lowe's, the home-improvement chain.

It's not just that Treasure can claim his tactics triggered sales increases up to 38 percent. Simple sound management fixes can recover sales lost by people walking out the door.

His tools are a decibel meter and a digital recording studio in his laptop. Depending on the circumstances, he prescribes a laundry list of baffles, mufflers, sound-absorbing fabric and sophisticated sound systems that can project sound to a tightly defined area of an open room. The right music may include several original composers of "generative" New Age music proven to refresh moods because it avoids using repetitive strains.

It's not all music. People find birds chirping reassuring because thousands of years ago humans learned that was a signal there was no danger lurking. Surf sounds are relaxing because at 12 cycles a minute they are about the same as human breathing while asleep.

Don't get him started on automated call centers. Often businesses whose only contact with customers is delivered over the phone subject them to recordings like, "We truly value your call as very important."

"So why no human and the press one, press two nonsense?" asked Treasure. "They start customer interaction with a lie."

Treasure, who estimates he lost 13 percent of his hearing as a rock drummer in his 20s, tried magazine publishing before venturing into the science of sound. The training has left him concerned that he's the only one shielding his ears from permanent damage when a train with squealing wheels screeches past.

"I realized my passion for music really was a passion for all sounds," he said.

Off-hours lounging at the Don CeSar's poolside pub gave him little peace. So, armed with decibel readings as high as a nerve-jangling 77, he gave a breakfast presentation to hotel manager Steven Cummings.

Cummings took it to heart. He ordered the loud rock music turned down, toured the hotel with Treasure, closing his eyes to listen for annoying sounds and promised to consider changes.

"This hotel should sound like the grand old dame of the gulf," Treasure said. "The beach lounge need not sound like a night club all day."

Staff Writer Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

Sound business: listen up retailers 05/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 4:33pm]
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