How Your Home's Soundscape Directs Your Online Shopping

Unlike brick-and-mortar retailers, online sellers are stuck with the noises of everyday life.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters

If you want shoppers to overestimate a product’s quality, play them classical music. If you want them to make more rational purchasing decisions, turn on the TV and put on a soccer game. If you want them to buy a barbecue, play the sounds of birds chirping.

These are some of the findings of a new study led by Patrick Fagan, a professor at the University of London who specializes in consumer behavior. Sound has long been known to have an effect on shoppers’ decision making—Nordstrom used to employ a ton of pianists, and Chipotle has a head DJ—but the idea behind this study is novel: Commissioned by eBay, it was meant to examine the effects of sound on shoppers not in stores but online.

The study put about 2,000 people, most of them British, American, or Indian, through a simulated online shopping experience that had them sizing up a blender, wine, a board game, sneakers, and a barbecue. A control group shopped in silence while other groups were serenaded by the rumble of roadwork and the hum of an air-conditioner, among other sounds people commonly hear when shopping online. The researchers also administered tests measuring mood and rational-thinking abilities throughout the simulation.

The study’s findings are a mix of surprising and intuitive. Research probably wasn’t necessary to confirm that pop music makes most shoppers feel good or that the sound of a crying baby soured their spirits. But it’s interesting that classical music and restaurant chatter make people think that a product is of a higher quality than it actually is. The sounds of lawnmowers made people more interested in products made for the outdoors.

Purchasing Intentions After Hearing the Sound of Birds Chirping

Researchers have been studying phenomena like these for a while. A 2008 study found that the louder the music was in a bar, the more beer its patrons would drink. A decade earlier, it was found that playing French music in a wine store moved more units of French wine than when German music was played.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have a great deal of control over a store’s environment, and designers can fashion websites that squeeze purchases out of online shoppers (Amazon’s one-click ordering is just one example). But there’s little research out there examining the physical stimuli that accompany the online shopping experience. Retailers already build mobile shopping prompts around a user’s location and the weather, so why not account for their sonic surroundings as well?

It may be the case that this study, released in celebration of eBay’s 15th year in the UK, is just a harmless stunt. Plus, it would be remarkably intrusive if retailers tried flooding shoppers' computer speakers with uninvited sound. That said, if a website knew that a shopper was using her smartphone in the din of Manhattan, maybe it would present her with a simpler layout than if she were browsing in the relative serenity of Hudson Valley.