Apple's 'Unbearably Noisy' Store Might Not Be an Accident

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The new flagship Apple store in Palo Alto is too loud, says Apple's former head of advanced product development and worldwide marketing, Jean-Louis Gassée, in his Monday note. "The store is impressive… but it's also unpleasantly, almost unbearably noisy," he wrote after clocking the noise level at above 75 decibels in the store. That's a full 10 decibels higher than the traffic on what Gassée calls the "always busy" University Avenue. But maybe it's just the right amount of loud to get you to buy. 

While some don't find the Palo Alto store too loud, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires workers to wear hearing protection if they are exposed to 90-decibel noise for eight hours, according to The New York Times's Cara Buckley. And at 85 decibels, employers are supposed to provide hearing protection and conduct hearing tests. So 75 is almost too loud, officially. Gassee attributes the noise level to poor architectural design, pointing a finger at the recently fired John Browett. But what if this isn't an oversight and instead rather something Apple planned, as a way to get people to buy more?

Apple's isn't the first store to draw complaints because of high noise levels. Teen favorites Abercrombie and Fitch and Hollister have been doing this for years, and it is most certainly a conscious decision, as those store stereos blare untz-untz throughout the store. (Or at least that's the type of music they played when I was in high school.) In their SoHo stores, volume levels stretched into the high 80s and often the low 90s, noted Buckley, who went there armed with a decibel counter. The reason to blast music in a store, though, is because loud music can have certain positive effects. "There’s a lot of studies out there showing that the more time spent in the store correlates to more items purchased,"Brian McKinley, vice president for marketing at DMX, the sensory branding company that creates Abercrombie’s playlists, told Buckley. "The unique A&F in-store experience is something that our customer wants," added an Abercrombie spokesperson. If the customer likes it, they stay in the store longer, and then they buy more, or so the research would indicate.

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Of course Abercrombie and Apple have different clientele, and Apple isn't exactly playing club music. But research from the University of Minnesota has shown that loud volumes can entice people to buy. "Overload makes people move into a less deliberate mode of decision making," wrote Kathleen Vohs, one of the study's authors. "People might be more likely to be lured by brand names, fooled by discounts on items that they might not really want, and susceptible to other influences." Another study found that not "too loud" noise gets us to think creatively about how we would use a product, and therefore find more ways to justify its purchase. For example, all that noise might get you thinking about the potential uses for the iPad Mini you hadn't thought about before.

Apple puts so much thought into the in-store experience that it wouldn't surprise us if the acoustics in this new location had been designed this way on purpose. Gassée might not enjoy it, but turning him off could simply be a decent opportunity cost to get shoppers to spend more. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.