Creating an immersive retail experience through sound
Sound technology is slowly making its surprising mark across both e-Commerce and physical shopping, as retailers look harder to create a unique experience for consumers. While both experiences are different, sound is the connective tissue linking them together.
For e-Commerce, sound is used to capture the user’s attention. For example, notifications from apps are now being customized to give a catchier sound, that will draw users’ attention across a crowded (and noisy) digital landscape. Multimedia products being displayed on some e-Commerce apps are also able to provide an audio sample of the product. For example, the sound of water filling a cup for a water dispenser product.
While e-Commerce apps can easily implement audio to their products, it’s a bit more challenging for physical stores. Unlike apps, having sound played in a physical store would mean the audio can be heard by all customers. If it’s too loud, customers may be put off. And if it’s too soft, no one is going to notice it.
Harnessing next-generation sound technology, several tech startups are now creating immersive soundscapes not only for retail, but for the workplace as well. In fact, a 2011 study showed that with the right sound and tempo, in-store sales can increase.
As such, retailers and companies are integrating sound technology in their stores to create a better experience for shoppers and employees alike. In the US, award-winning immersive audio software platform Spatial recently announced a partnership with Made Music Studio to create immersive sonic experiences for any environment, starting with an inaugural series of workplace-focused ambiances.
In the UK, Audiebant Media, an intelligent audio communication solutions company is partnering with EG Group to develop a multi-sensory platform for the company’s convenience stores. The tech firm offers its clients opportunities to connect with consumers thanks to its advertising surround sound technology and plans to incorporate several strategies to reach millions of car users at roadside retail locations across the UK.
To understand more about how the use of audio and sound technology can help retailers, TechHQ speaks to Calin Pacurariu, co-founder and chief executive officer of Spatial.
How does sound affect a shopper’s perception?
Everything that happens on a shopper’s journey to a store, from looking up a brand or an address before getting to the store, to their actual experience of what they purchased long after they leave it, impacts the shopper’s perception of that store, and the brand in general. There’s a lot of innovation in retail that we’ve seen over the last decade that focused on digital transformation — including localized sound experiences like you mention, in-store app experience notifications, or how a product gets demoed, etc.
Incremental moments of delight and improving the actual shopping experience are great; what we’re looking at is to take that further into affecting the whole mindset of a shopper as part of the holistic experience they move through when they enter a store. Immersive auditory experiences, whether loud and quiet, can bridge subconscious touchpoints that dramatically affect our outlook and form lasting connections to a physical space —such as a retail store.
How can retailers utilize soundscapes in a new world of hyper-experiential expectations?
Retail is entering a very exciting decade ahead! The new standard of experience that customers expect today, new needs and challenges imposed by consumers who have adapted to shopping on-demand via their devices, and the current state of various immersive technologies — all these are increasingly converging today, opening up incredibly exciting opportunities for retailers to significantly rethink the way they design human experiences.
Immersive soundscapes should be a critical part of such new thinking, from the very first stages of design and architecture. The way retail has been developed so far often leaves sound like a last-minute add-on. Playlists, as good as they can be, tend to become looping nightmares for the teams actually working all day long in those spaces. So what can immersive soundscapes do?
The key underlying fact is that immersive sound can forge deep and lasting emotional connections — consciously or subconsciously — to a brand, a product, or a space. The way we design around that can take different shapes. We can look at a store holistically, and design interactive, realistic soundscapes that transport people, set the mood (e.g., reflect product seasonality in fashion retail), support wayfinding and general user journeys, or intelligently manage noise levels for example based on crowd density. We can also look at more specific applications.
For example, a fashion shopper could set their desired dressing room atmosphere based on the occasion they’re shopping for (from a quiet beach to a flashing red carpet). A shopper looking for a sneaker might find themselves literally in the middle of a basketball game, on the very court, with players dribbling past them, or a 3-pointer buzzer coming off. All that could be triggered by the simple act of a shopper picking up a shoe from its stand.
Can sound really change our emotional connection to a place?
For years, scientists, doctors, and auditory professionals have been studying the effects of sound on the human psyche. In fact, earlier this year, Spatial successfully launched its own prototype demonstrating the power that sound has on our emotions, in partnership with Reimagine Well (a company that creates tech-enabled immersive experiences for patients), the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and the Henry Mayo Newhall Clinic.
The success of the prototype caught the attention of other health systems around the country and enabled Spatial to launch a new partnership in October with Wellstar, a nationally ranked healthcare system in Atlanta, and HealthTunes, a digital streaming platform offering evidence-based sound therapy. The “resiliency rooms” being installed at Wellstar will be designed by HealthTunes using Spatial’s technology, and will aim to help frontline healthcare workers at Wellstar reduce the stress and anxiety brought on by the Covid 19 health crisis.
Retail offers a number of similar use cases and more (for back of house as well as consumer-facing): soundscapes in retail spaces will be game-changers as retailers can help customers emotionally connect and create lasting perception and positive memories of the types of experiences that a brand provides.
Why sound is an important part of the human experience but is often overlooked due to the primacy of the visual experience?
There are some reasons for that. First, the technology underlying rich visual experiences advanced at a much faster pace than the technology for sound — or rather, the democratization of such technology. Truly immersive sound experiences have been possible for a while, however, their cost is considerable, and those solutions have always relied on expensive hardware and custom, inflexible software and content setups.
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We want to streamline access to such experiences, as well as their creation & deployment. We make software that empowers people to create audio experiences as you’ve never heard before; immersive, dynamic, and adaptable to any configuration of space or hardware. All that at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems, and with an ecosystem that can adapt, grow, and replicate as needed. Content that can be updated and propagated seamlessly and instantly. Realistic soundscapes that aren’t looping tracks, but intelligent and adaptive.
But back to the question — the second part for why that hasn’t been done so far is also an awareness of what is even possible, at the earliest stages of design and architecture. When you assume something cannot be done unless you add 7-figure budgets to even get started, in most cases you’re going to not even consider it in your original vision for retail space. Part of our mission is to raise awareness that today, sound can finally come out of the shadows and become a real lever to consider utilizing from the very first phases of design thinking.
Can you share with us examples of how retailers are using sound to increase their sales?
Our first retail projects are still in design phases and under confidentiality constraints with top global brands. But I can tell you that the use cases we’re seeing most often relate to the general & adaptive mood-setting in a space, interactivity that amplifies a shopper’s interest in a specific product, and purchase decision-making support at the right moment of a consumer’s journey (e.g., in a dressing room), overlays of traditional music at appropriate moments and more.
Lastly, is using sound technology more expensive compared to the visual experience?
Previously, achieving similar quality of immersion to Spatial’s offerings relied on highly specialized software and proprietary hardware with exorbitant cost. But Spatial’s platform runs on modern inexpensive Macs and a wide range of off-the-shelf amplifiers and speakers which dramatically reduces costs and makes immersive audio solutions a serious contender in the future of immersive design.
We’ve proven that these immersive retail solutions can scale from a small locally owned retail boutique to global retail chains utilizing the same underlying Spatial platform. Finally immersive audio is a peer of visual designs that are taken for granted in retail environments.