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Sounds like a healthy retail atmospheric strategy: Effects of ambient music and background noise on food sales

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Abstract

Retail atmospherics is becoming an increasingly important strategic tool for stores and restaurants. Ambient music and background noise are especially important atmospheric elements given their ubiquity in retail settings. However, there is high variation in the volume of ambient music and background noise, with some stores/restaurants having very loud ambience and others having very quiet ambience. Given the variation in loudness levels at stores/restaurants, and the managerial ease of adjusting volume level, we investigate the consequences of ambient music (and background noise) volume on food choices and sales. A pilot study, two field experiments, and five lab studies show that low (vs. high or no) volume music/noise leads to increased sales of healthy foods due to induced relaxation. In contrast, high volume music/noise tends to enhance excitement levels, which in turn leads to unhealthy food choices.
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Journal of the Academy of Marketing
Science
Official Publication of the Academy of
Marketing Science
ISSN 0092-0703
J. of the Acad. Mark. Sci.
DOI 10.1007/s11747-018-0583-8
Sounds like a healthy retail atmospheric
strategy: Effects of ambient music and
background noise on food sales
Dipayan Biswas, Kaisa Lund & Courtney
Szocs
1 23
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ORIGINAL EMPIRICAL RESEARCH
Sounds like a healthy retail atmospheric strategy: Effects of ambient
music and background noise on food sales
Dipayan Biswas
1
&Kaisa Lund
2
&Courtney Szocs
3,4
Received: 27 January 2017 /Accepted: 16 April 2018
#Academy of Marketing Science 2018
Abstract
Retail atmospherics is becoming an increasingly important strategic tool for stores and restaurants. Ambient music and back-
ground noise are especially important atmospheric elements given their ubiquity in retail settings. However, there is high
variation in the volume of ambient music and background noise, with some stores/restaurants having very loud ambience and
others having very quiet ambience. Given the variation in loudness levels at stores/restaurants, and the managerial ease of
adjusting volume level, we investigate the consequences of ambient music (and background noise) volume on food choices
and sales. A pilot study, two field experiments, and five lab studies show that low (vs. high or no) volume music/noise leads to
increased sales of healthy foods due to induced relaxation. In contrast, high volume music/noise tends to enhance excitement
levels, which in turn leads to unhealthy food choices.
Keywords Retail atmospherics .Sensory marketing .Ambient music .Food sales .Healthy and unhealthy foods
With increased competition from online stores, brick-and-
mortar retailers are placing greater emphasis on retail atmo-
spheric strategies to create optimal in-store experiences for
customers (Bacon 2014; Biswas et al. 2017). One significant
aspect of retail atmospherics is ambient sound, which includes
ambient music and noise. Ambient music is ubiquitous in
retail stores and restaurants. However, while the presence of
ambient music is consistent across a wide range of stores/
restaurants, there is variation in the volume of this music, with
some outlets having very loud music and others having very
quiet music (Vines 2015). Along with ambient music, back-
ground noise is another factor that varies across retail stores
and restaurants. While background noise is a less controllable
variable than ambient music, there can still be instances where
a store can set standards for noise levels based on norms and
employeesactivities.
Interestingly, as documented in the popular press, there has
been an increasing trend towards louder stores/restaurants
(Johnson 2016). In fact, a New York Times reporter measured
the sound level at different stores/restaurants and found that
over 33% of the establishments polled in New York City had
sound levels that were so high that legal regulations require
employees to wear ear protection (Buckley 2012). Similar
trends have been observed in the fitness industry, with gyms
playing music at much louder levels than they did in the past
(Hallett 2015). At the same time though, with many retail stores
and restaurants getting louder in many places, and especially in
Europe, the popular press has documented a recent movement
to reduce sound levels in retail settings (Robertson 2015).
The variation in music volume across stores/restaurants
may stem from the fact that volume can be changed easily
and without any significant monetary expenses. Also, as re-
vealed by top executives of a major global retail chain in an
Dipayan Biswas, Kaisa Lund and Courtney Szocs contributed equally.
Maura Scott served as Area Editor for this article.
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article
(https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-018-0583-8) contains supplementary
material, which is available to authorized users.
*Dipayan Biswas
dbiswas@usf.edu
Kaisa Lund
kaisa.lund@lnu.se
Courtney Szocs
cszocs@lsu.edu
1
University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA
2
Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden
3
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, USA
4
Portland State University, Portland, OR, USA
Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-018-0583-8
Author's personal copy
interactive meeting with the authors, many retail chains give
store managers and employees flexibility to set volume levels
without any centrally mandated norms. Additionally, the pop-
ular press has suggested that restaurant/store managers use mu-
sic volume as a strategic tool and manipulate it to attract spe-
cific target demographics (Grinspan 2012), to create an overall
ambience (Salisbury 2014), and to encourage customers to stay
longer (Avant 2014). For example, Abercrombie & Fitch
(A&F) stores play music between 85 and 90 dB, which is just
below the legally allowed limit for commercial establishments
with employees without ear protection (Grinspan 2012;
Richards 2012); to put things in perspective, a standard
lawnmower makes noise at around 90 dB (Richards 2012).
Apparently, A&Fs strategy behind the high volume ambient
music is to keep Bolder^customers away from their stores
(Paxman 2011).
While music volume is being used for different strategic
reasons across stores/restaurants, in this research, we examine
whether manipulating music (and noise) volume might also
influence consumersfood purchases in retail and restaurant
settings. We address the following research question: Can low
(vs. high) volume ambient music influence consumerschoice
and purchase behavior related to healthy versus unhealthy
foods? In one of our experiments (Study 3b), we also examine
the effects of ambient noise.
Prior studies have examined the effects of ambient music
on a wide range of variables including time perceptions
(Kellaris and Kent 1992; Yalch and Spangenberg 2000), store
evaluations (Spangenberg et al. 2005), amount of time and
money spent in a store (Caldwell and Hibbert 2002;
Milliman 1982,1986), consumption volume (Stroebele and
de Castro 2006), and overall shopping experience (Garlin
and Owen 2006), among others. More recently, research has
examined how ambient music influences consumerspercep-
tions and evaluations of foods. Research in this stream has
focused specifically on how different types of ambient music
influence the taste of wine (North 2012) and how the pitch of
ambient music influences food taste (Crisinel et al. 2012).
However, the effects of ambient music volume on choices
between healthy and unhealthy options have not been ex-
plored. Additionally, another group of studies has focused
on the effects of other aspects of ambient sound. Studies in
this domain show that extremely loud (vs. quiet) airline cabin
noise decreases the intensity of sweet solutions and increases
the intensity of umami flavored solutions (Yan and Dando
2015), and that louder background noise decreases the per-
ceived sweetness and saltiness and increases the perceived
crunchiness of foods (Woods et al. 2011). These studies have
not focused on how ambient music volume influences choices
between foods varying in healthiness levels.
Moreover, another distinguishing factor between prior
studies and our research is that most prior studies have been
conducted in labs with student participants. Even when field
studies were conducted, the analyses often involved survey
data instead of actual sales data. In contrast, two of our studies
are field experiments involving actual sales of food items with
the analyses performed on sales data (instead of self-reported
survey data).
There is also a rich stream of literature that has examined
factors that can influence choices between healthy and un-
healthy options. Studies in this literature stream show that
factors such as mode of processing (Shiv and Fedorikhin
1999), ambient scent (Biswas and Szocs 2018), ambient light-
ing (Biswas et al. 2017), and lateral display positions (Romero
and Biswas 2016) influence consumer preferences for healthy
(vs. unhealthy) options. However, to the best of our knowl-
edge, no study has examined ambient music volume as a fac-
tor that might influence food choices.
Understanding the effects of ambient music volume on
healthy/unhealthy choices is important for several reasons.
First, given the variation in ambient sound levels, restaurant
and retail managers should understand any unintended conse-
quences that strategies related to varying ambient music vol-
ume might have on consumer purchases. Second, ambient
music volume can be easily adjusted without much time or
monetary investment. So, if food choices and purchases are
indeed influenced by ambient music volume, this is relevant
information for consumers as well as for marketers when they
are formulating retail atmospheric strategies. Third, obesity is
a serious global concern, especially since high rates of obesity
affect overall health and wellbeing (Biswas et al. 2017).
Practitioners, regulators, and research scholars have focused
on efforts to findsolutions to this obesity problem (Berry et al.
2017;Burtonetal.1999). While regulators have been proac-
tive in curbing unhealthy consumption, an alternative ap-
proach with behavioral science to nudge healthful consump-
tion can sometimes be more effective than overtly restrictive
regulatory policies. In that regard, using ambient music vol-
ume to nudge healthy choices could be especially effective
since consumers usually arent aware of the influence of these
types of sensory factors (Krishna 2012). Finally, examining
the cross-modal influences of an auditory-based sensory cue
like ambient music/sound on gustatory behavior related to
food choices can provide interesting conceptual insights.
In sum, in this research, we examine how strategies related
to ambient music and noise volume might influence sales of
healthy and unhealthy foods. We test our hypotheses through
a series of studies. First, a pilot study, with physiological mea-
sures related to heart beat rate, shows support for our proposed
theorizing. Then, a field experiment (Study 1) conducted at a
café demonstrates that ambient music played at a low (vs.
high) volume leads to healthier food ordering, as reflected in
actual sales data. Study 2a, conducted in a controlled lab set-
ting, replicates the key findings of Study 1. Study 2b and 2c
replicate the key findings of Studies 1 and 2a and also rule out
alternative explanations. Studies 3a (with ambient music) and
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3b (with ambient noise) examine the process driving the ef-
fects. Finally, while Studies 1-3b involve purchase/choice of
primarily a single item, Study 4, a field experiment conducted
at a major supermarket, shows the effects of ambient music
volume on a basket of items purchased.
Theoretical background
Ambient music
Ambient music refers to music being played in the back-
ground; it is often used to create an overall atmosphere or
feeling. As mentioned earlier, there is extant research examin-
ing the effects of ambient music. Prior research has examined
the effects of different aspects of ambient music on a range of
perceptions and behaviors. For instance, prior studies have
classified ambient music based on whether it was familiar
(vs. unfamiliar) (Yalch and Spangenberg 2000), foreground
(vs. background) (Yalch and Spangenberg 1990), soothing
(vs. arousing) (Kellaris and Mantel 1996), positive (vs. nega-
tive) (Hui et al. 1995; Kellaris and Kent 1992), pleasant (vs.
unpleasant) (Morin et al. 2007), or vocal (vs. instrumental)
(Kang and Lakshmanan 2017).
Other work has examined the effects of ambient music in
combination with other atmospheric factors. Research in this
stream shows that congruence between ambient music and scent
(e.g., BChristmas music^with a BChristmas scent^) leads to
more favorable evaluations than incongruence (e.g., a
BChristmas scent^with Bnon-Christmas music^) (Spangenberg
et al. 2005). Morrison et al. (2011) showed that high volume
music along with the presence (vs. absence) of an ambient scent
increases perceived pleasure.
A handful of studies have focused specifically on the ef-
fects of music on food/beverage perceptions and consumption
decisions (Spence and Deroy 2013). For example, North
(2012) found that the emotional connotations associated with
the ambient music that was playing while individuals drank
wine, influenced participantsevaluations of the wine. Along
similar lines, ambient music of different pitches influenced
perceptions of bitterness and sweetness of the foods consumed
while listening to the music (Crisinel and Spence 2010a,b,
2012; Spence and Deroy 2013). Also, research has examined
how the pitch of ambient music influenced beverage con-
sumption rates (McElrea and Standing 1992). However, no
study has examined how ambient music influences choices
of healthy and unhealthy food options, an issue that we exam-
ine in this research. Table 1provides an overview of the liter-
ature examining the effects of ambient music since Garlin and
Owens(2006)meta-analysis.
There are several dimensions to music, such as tempo and
rhythm (both time/pace related), loudness/volume, timbre (i.e.,
texture referring to the distinctiveness in instrument tone), and
pitch (i.e., perception of frequency) (Kellaris and Kent 1993).
Some research has examined the effects of these dimensions
individually. For instance, research has examined how tempo
influences willingness to make price comparisons (Feng et al.
2014), wait time perceptions (Oakes and North 2008), and
time/money spent in a restaurant (Caldwell and Hibbert
1999). Research on effects of music volume is relatively sparse.
Smith and Curnow (1966) examined the effect of volume on
overall supermarket sales and found no difference in dollar
sales; it is worth noting that they did not examine effects of
music volume on type of food purchased. Guéguen et al.
(2004) showed that higher than normal (vs. normal) volume
music lead to greater alcohol consumption. (Van de Goor et al.
1990) demonstrated that adolescent boys (but not adolescent
girls) drank more alcohol in the presence of loud music.
In addition, Kellaris and Rice (1993) examined how music
volume and tempo jointly influence consumershedonic re-
sponses. Kellaris and Kent (1993) examined how tempo, to-
nality and texture of music influence consumersemotional
responses. Knoferle, Spangenberg, and Herrmann (Knoferle
et al. 2012) examined how tempo and mode influence sales.
The different dimensions of music have unique effects on
consumers (Dalton and Behm 2007). Among all these differ-
ent dimensions, we focus on music volume due to managerial
factors. That is, from a managerial perspective, music volume
(as opposed to tempo or pitch) is the easiest to change and
manipulate at very short notice and without much resource
commitment. Next, we discuss ambient music/sound volume
and its effects on consumers in greater detail.
Ambient music volume
Loudness of any sound, including ambient music, is the ener-
gy associated with the sound. Music volume levels signifi-
cantly influence the overall sensory system due to the way
music is processed. Specifically, when music is played in the
ambience, the sound waves get transduced into neural im-
pulses by the inner ear and the neural information then travels
through the brain system to reach the auditory cortex (Zatorre
2005). Moreover, the information from the auditory cortex
interacts with other areas of the brain, and especially the fron-
tal lobe (Zatorre 2005; Zatorre et al. 2002). The brain responds
to music in an automatic reflexive manner(Juslin and Västfjäll
2008;Lecanuet1996), and hence music can influence behav-
ior at the unconscious or sub-conscious level.
While it is still not explicit as to how music volume influ-
ences physiological reactions through the neurophysiology sys-
tem, one explanation put forward is that music influences motor
and physiological reactions through sensory-motor feedback
circuits (Zatorre 2005). Hence, the volume level of ambient
music tends to have a direct effect on heart rate and arousal,
whereby louder music tends to increase overall heart rate and
arousal level (Edgeworthy and Waring 2006). In essence,
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Table 1 Summary of studies on the effects of ambient music since Garlin and Owens(2006) meta-analysis
Study IV(s) DV(s) Type of study Key findings
Morrison et al. (2011)JBR Music volume
Ambient scent
Pleasure
Arousal
satisfaction
Field experiment at a
fashion retailer
Presence of scent and high volume music leads to increased pleasure
High volume music leads to greater perceived arousal and greater satisfaction
Beverland et al. (2006)JBR Music-brand fit Consumer perceptions
satisfaction
Lab interviews Music-brand fit is an important signaling cue for consumers who are
unfamiliar with the store/brand, and leads to positive perceptions and
satisfaction
Music volume moderates the effect of music-brand fit on consumerspercep-
tions
Mohan et al. (2013)EJM Store environment Impulse purchasing Survey at a shopping mall Appropriate music in combination with Bproper layouts^, friendly
environments and Bwell-lit^stores encourages impulse shopping
Andersson et al. (2012)Journal of
Retailing & Consumer Services
Ambient music
Music tempo
Arousal
Approach
Enjoyment
Money spent
Time spent
Field studies at
supermarket & home
electronics store
Presence (vs. absence) of music influenced time and money spent
Music (vs. no music) leads to higher spending.
Music (vs. no music) increase enjoyment and approach
Broekemier et al. (2008)Journal of
Services Marketing
Ambient music
Music liking
Purchase intentions Lab experiment Music that is happy and liked (vs. sad and disliked) has the most favorable
impact on purchase intentions
Cheng, Wu &Yen (Cheng et al.
2009)Behaviour & Information
Technology
Music tempo
Ambient color
Pleasure
Arousal
Lab experiment Fast tempo music and warm colors maximize pleasure and arousal.
Knoferle, Spangenberg, & Hermann
(Knoferle et al. 2012)Marketing
Letters
Music tempo
Music mode
Sales Field experiment at a
department store
Mode moderates the effect of tempo on sales such that when music is in a
minor mode, slow tempo positively influences sales. When music is in a
major mode, tempo has no influence on sales
Oakes and North (2008)Journal of
Marketing Management
Music tempo
Crowd density
Perceived wait time
affective responses
Lab experiment Slow (vs. fast tempo or no music) leads to shorter perceived wait time.
With low crowd density, presence of music (vs. absence) leads to positive
affective responses. There was no difference in affective responses with high
crowd density
Demoulin (2011)Journal of
Retailing & Consumer Services
Congruency of music
with servicescape
Emotional responses
Quality perceptions
Patronage intentions
Field experiment at a
French restaurant
Congruent (vs. incongruent) music leads to low arousal and high pleasure
Low arousal and high pleasure from congruent music increase quality
perceptions and patronage intentions
Morin et al. (2007)Journal of
Retailing
Ambient music
Ambient music
Memorability
Attitudes
Perceptions of the service
encounter
Lab experiment Presence (vs. absence) of music leads a service provider to stand out in a
consumers mind.
Pleasant (vs. unpleasant) music leads to more favorable attitudes and
perceptions of service outcomes
Feng et al. (2014)Psychology &
Marketing
Music tempo Math anxiety
Willingness to make price
comparisons
Lab experiment Slow (vs. fast tempo or no) music can alleviate math anxiety and lead math
anxious consumers to make price comparisons
Ballouli and Bennett (2014)Sport
Marketing Quarterly
Music type Perceived music-store fit
Store evaluations
Field experiment at a retail
store in a sports stadium
Custom brand (vs. generic) music leadsto greater perceptions of fit and more
favorable evaluations of the store
Mangini and Thelen (2008)Journal
of Hospitality & Leisure
Marketing
Ambient music Brand personality
Service quality
Lab experiment Ambient music (vs. no music) leads to more favorable evaluations of
restaurant décor and higher service quality expectations/
Music liking Length of shopping trip
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Tab l e 1 (continued)
Study IV(s) DV(s) Type of study Key findings
Vida et al. (2007)The International
Review of Retail, Distribution
and Consumer Research
Music fit Spending Field experiment at a
high-end supermarket
Liked (vs. disliked) music and music that is perceived to fit with the store lead
to longer trips and greater spending
Kang and Lakshmanan (2017)
Journal of Consumer Psychology
Music type
Memory capacity
Learning/cognitive
performance
Online and lab experiments With lower memory capacity vocal music leads to poorer performance. With
high memory capacity, music type doesnt matter
The effects of vocal music are attenuated when individuals habituate to the
music
Das and Hagtvedt (2016)
International Journal of
Research in Marketing
Music arousal
Voice greeting arousal
Arousal of images
Evaluations of the store Field experiment (gift
shop) & lab experiment
The store environment is perceived more positively when ambient factors
match (vs. mismatch) in terms of arousal
The effects of matching of ambient factors on consumer evaluations are
mediated by perceived fit
Carvalho et al. (2015)Journal of
Sensory Studies
Music soundtrack Perceived taste Lab experiment Music can enhance the taste of chocolates
Bitter chocolate is perceived as more bitter tasting in the presence of bitter
music(vs.sweetmusicormediummusic)
Sweet chocolate is perceived as sweeter in the presence of sweet (vs. medium
music (vs. bitter music)
Holm et al. (2012)Nursing in
Critical Care
Ambient music Responses of nurses and
family members
Focus group Some nurses had positive attitudes towards the presence of music others
thought having the music was strange.
Some nurses felt the music was peaceful; others felt it was sad
Relatives of the deceased had positive responses towards the presence of
music
Lastinger (2011)Journal of Music
Therapy
Music genre Perceptions of an
individuals based on a
voice recording
Lab experiment Music genre influences personality judgments
Perceptions of individuals were more negative when judgments were made in
the presence of rap or country music (vs. other genres)
Jacob et al. (2010)International
Journal of Hospitality
Management
Ambient music Tipping behavior Field experiment at a
restaurant
Patrons left larger tips when prosocial music was playing than when music that
was not prosocial or baseline/normal restaurant music was playing
Noseworthy and Finlay (2009)
Journal of Gambling Studies
Type of sound
Vo l u m e
Tem po
Perceived time Lab experiment Perceived time spent gambling was greater in the presence of music (vs. only a
slot machine sound)
Tempo moderated the effects of sound on perceived time so that perceived time
spent gambling was longer when slow (vs. fast) tempo music was played.
There was no difference in perceived time based on the tempo of the slot
machine noise
There was also a three-way interaction between type of sound, volume and
tempo
Schlittmeier and Hellbrück (2009)
Applied Cognitive Psychology
Ambient sound played
over office noise
Cognitive performance Lab experiment Pink noise (vs. staccato or legato music) attenuated the effects of office noise
on cognitive performance
Wu et al. (2008)Information &
Management
Ambient music Tempo
Ambient color
Pleasure
Arousal
Approach/avoidance
Lab experiment Fast (vs. slow) tempo music and warm (vs. cool) colors increased pleasure,
arousal and intentions to approach the store website
Gatti & da Silva (Gatti and Silva
2007)Latin American Journal of
Nursing
Ambient music Perceptions of music
Perceptions of music on
performance
Field experiment in the
emergency room of a
hospital
Most medical professionals had positive perceptions of the music.
Some professionals thought the music had a positive impact on work
performance
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louder music tends to make people more excited and aroused
(Witt 2008). In contrast, lower volume music (in the range of
5060 dB) tends to make people relaxed and calm (Nilsson
2009b). The relaxing effects of music have been shown to
enhance performance across different activities (Wiesenthal
et al. 2000). For instance, driving in the presence of moderately
high (vs. quiet or very high) volume music enhances reaction
times (Turner et al. 1996) and increases awareness (Matthews
et al. 1998). Moreover, the effects of moderate (vs. loud) music
on driving performance occur irrespective of the genre of music
(e.g., rock, classical) (Dalton et al. 2007).
There are different views as to how or why music induces
relaxation. For example, Knight and Rickard (2001)exposed
individuals to a stressful task (i.e., preparing to give a speech)
in the presence or absence of music. They found that individ-
uals who were exposed to music not only reported lower
levels of subjective anxiety, but that the physiological re-
sponses to stress (e.g., increased blood pressure, heart rate)
were reduced among individuals exposed to music. Other
studies have explained the effects of music on stress and re-
laxation in terms of neurochemical changes. For instance,
meditative music (vs. no music) can decrease levels of the
stress hormone cortisol (Mockel et al. 1994). Consistent with
this, after experiencing stress, cortisol levels decrease more
quickly when individuals are exposed to relaxing music com-
pared to no music (Khalfa et al. 2003). Furthermore, cortisol
levels are reduced when patients listen to relaxing music after
undergoing an operation (Nilsson 2009a; Nilsson et al. 2005).
A final possible explanation for the effects of music on stress
and relaxation relates to learned associations. Some studies
(e.g., Chanda and Levitin 2013) suggest that from an evolu-
tionary perspective, soft sounds might be associated in the
brain with natural and maternal sounds which decrease arousal
leading to decreased heart rate and blood pressure while loud
sounds might be associated with alarm calls which increase
sympathetic arousal leading to increases in heart rate and
blood pressure.
In sum, research shows that high volume ambient music
leads to excitement, stress, and arousal while low volume
ambient music leads to relaxation. Next, we discuss how these
emotional responses to music would influence food choices.
Effects of relaxation, excitement, and stress on food
choices
If lower volume music relaxes consumers and higher volume
music enhances excitement, how will that impact food
choices? Research shows that higher levels of excitement
(and stress) tend to enhance preference for high energy and
high fat foods (Oliver et al. 2000) as well as for unhealthy
snack foods (Oliver and Wardle 1999). Moreover, when emo-
tionally charged or upset, internal restraints and self-control
break down, leading to greater consumption of unhealthy
Tab l e 1 (continued)
Study IV(s) DV(s) Type of study Key findings
Marmureck et al. (2007)
International Gambling Studies
Ambient sound
Casino design
At risk gambling intentions Lab experiment With a playground design, gambling intentions were greater in the presence of
music (vs. gambling sounds). With a gaming design, gambling intentions
were greater in the presence of gambling sounds (vs. music)
Kontukoski et al. (2015)Nutrition
and Food Science
Ambient music Taste associations
Sugar and organic acid
added to drinks
Lab experiment Individuals associate sweet foods (e.g., chocolate) with sweet music and sour
foods (e.g., fruits) with sour music
Individuals add more sugar to a drink they prepare in the presence of sweet (vs.
sour) music, but add more organic acid to a drink they prepare in the presence
of sour (vs. sweet) music
Fenko and Loock (2014)Health
Environments Research &
Design Journal
Ambient music
Ambient scent
Patient anxiety Field experiment at a
plastic surgeonsoffice
Ambient music (vs. no music) decreased anxiety
Ambient scent (vs. no scent) decreased anxiety
Ambient music combined with ambient scent did not decrease anxiety
compared to the control (i.e., no music, no scent) condition
Ju and Ahn (2016)Journal of
Organizational Computing and
Electronic Commerce
Ambient music tempo
Scarcity
Social presence
Impulse purchasing Online experiment Fast (vs. slow) tempo music or no music led to greater pleasure and arousal and
increased impulse purchasing
Scarcity moderated the effect of music tempo on pleasure such that when
products were scarce music did not increase pleasure
Social presence increases impulse purchasing
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foods (Baumeister 2002). Not surprisingly, chronic dieters and
restrained eaters are especially sensitive to the effects of stress
(Zellner et al. 2006). Excitement/stress lead individuals to
choose unhealthy foods mainly because sweet and fatty foods
help reduce high levels of excitement and stress (Gibson
2006). In fact, research with both humans and animals sug-
gests that unhealthy/comfort foods can alleviate physiological
stress responses (Osboda et al. 2015; Pecoraro et al. 2004).
Additional research suggests that when stressed, individuals
tend to cope with negative feelings by shifting their attention
to foods associated with positive affect (Wallis and
Hetherington 2009).
Since stress and relaxation represent opposite ends of the
same continuum (Pham et al. 2011), relaxation would have an
opposite effect on food choices (i.e., lead to healthier choices).
Consistent with this idea, research demonstrates greater self-
efficacy for controlled eating under higher levels of relaxation
(Manzoni et al. 2009). Moreover, relaxation-based therapies
that encourage mindfulness can be effective in helping emo-
tional eaters lose weight (Goldbacher et al. 2016). For in-
stance, Manzoni et al. (2008) showed that obese individuals
who were exposed to three weeks of relaxation training had
greater perceived control in eating than individuals in a control
group who were not exposed to the relaxation training. In the
context of the present research, if lower (vs. higher) volume
ambient music induces greater relaxation, this should in turn
lead to healthier food choices.
To summarize, lower volume ambient music enhances con-
sumer relaxation levels while high volume ambient music
enhances excitement. We propose that in a relaxed state, con-
sumers have greater self-efficacy in resisting tempting, un-
healthy foods, leading to preference for healthier options. In
contrast, an excited state tends to enhance preference for un-
healthy foods. Hence, we hypothesize that low (vs. high) vol-
ume ambient music will enhance choice likelihood of healthy
food options.
H1: Low (vs. high) volume ambient music will lead to greater
preference for healthy foods.
Pilot study: Effects of ambient music volume
on relaxation/excitement
Method
We theorize that ambient music played at a low volume would
enhance relaxation while ambient music at high volume would
enhance excitement. We examined this theoretical claim with
the help of a pilot study, which was an experiment with two
manipulated, between-subjects conditions (ambient music vol-
ume: low vs. high). The two music volume levels were 55 dB
and 70 dB. The volume levels were determined based on prior
research which shows that music 90 dB and above is considered
foreground music (Kellaris and Altesch 1992), as well as re-
search which shows that music at 80 dB leads to negative affect
and even loss of hearing, and music below 50 dB is often not
detected (Baker and Cameron 1996; Witt 2008). Accordingly,
across all our studies, we used sound levels of around 5055 dB
and 70 dB as the low and high-volume levels, respectively.
In the pilot study, instead of relying on self-reported mea-
sures of perceived relaxation or excitement, which would be
subjective and prone to biases, we used an objective measure
of relaxation/excitement based on physiological evidence.
Specifically, a higher level of excitement should increase heart
rate while relaxation has the opposite effect (Chlan 1998).
Ninety-nine undergraduates from a major U.S. university
(M
age
= 25 years, 47% females) participated in the pilot study
in exchange for course credit. Students were invited to the lab
in groups of up to fourteen. They first arrived at a waiting area
and were then brought in a lab. The lab already had music
playing at a low or high volume level. Music volume was
randomly varied by session. Western classical music (compo-
sitions by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach) wasplayed for this study.
Participants were first given a couple of open-ended filler
questions (related to degree and major) to ensure sufficient
exposure to the effects of the ambient music. After this, to
avoid any suspicion related to ambient music being played
in a lab, participants were asked to evaluate their enjoyment
of the music (1 = very low, 7 = very high) and their overall
liking of the music (1 = hated it, 7 = loved it). The responses
to these measures were the same across the two music volume
conditions (p> .40). Finally, participantsheart rate was mea-
sured using a pulse oximeter (a device that measures heart rate
based on the readings at the fingertip).
Results and discussion
Consistent with our theorizing, the heart rate was (marginally)
higher when the ambient music was at high (vs. low) volume
(M
high
=79.64vs.M
low
=75.39;F(1, 97) = 3.38, p< .07). The
results of this study provide supporting evidence for our con-
ceptual argument that excitement (relaxation) level, as mani-
fested in heart rate, is higher when ambient music volume is
high (low). Next, we test H1 and examine the effects of am-
bient music on food sales.
Study 1: Field experiment at café examining
effects of ambient music on food sales
Method
We tested H1 with the help of a field experiment conducted at
a café, in collaboration with the café management. The café is
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located in a quiet neighborhood of a major city. It has weath-
erproof doors and windows, which makes the interior sound-
proof from any external noise/sound. The café has a centrally
controlled ambient music system with the option to amplify
the loudness level anywhere between 0 and 90 dB. For the
field experiment, there were two manipulated conditions: low
versus high volume ambient music. The two loudness levels
were consistent with the volume levels used in the pilot study
and were also consistent with feedback we received through
an interactive discussion with café employees; this discussion
was undertaken with the café open and with customers present
in the café. Specifically, we asked café employees to evaluate
the different volume levels. The employees indicated they
could not hear the music at settings below 50 dB and most
of the employees indicated discomfort with volume levels
above 75 dB. Hence, in the main study, volume levels of
55 dB and 70 dB were deemed appropriate for the two exper-
imental conditions.
The café had ambient music at the low versus high volume
levels on two random days (Wednesday, Friday) of the same
week. The low (high) volume music was played on
Wednesday (Friday). The same mix of music pieces (which
included the genres of pop, rock, jazz, blues, soul and R&B,
and alternative) was played in a loop across both days, with
only the volume level altered (55 dB vs. 70 dB). Web
Appendix A lists the song titles and artists that were played.
The key dependent measure was café patronsfood/
beverage purchases from the menu. A priori, the items on
the menu were coded as healthy, unhealthy, and neutral, using
current standards (Biswas et al. 2017; Biswas and Szocs
2018). For example, items such as salads, low calorie white
meat, and vegetable wraps/sandwiches were coded as healthy,
while items such as cakes, chocolates, and red meat wraps/
sandwiches were coded as unhealthy. Coffee and tea were
coded as neutral items; the coffee beverages sold at this café
did not contain cream and customers had the option of adding
sugar. See Web Appendix B for the entire list of food items
sold at the café, coded as healthy, unhealthy, and neutral. A
total of 549 items were sold across the two days of the study,
with 295 (254) items being sold on the day of the low (high)
ambient music volume condition.
Results and discussion
For the Blow music volume^condition, out of the 295 items
sold, 94 were healthy, 125 were unhealthy, and 76 were neu-
tral. For the Bhigh music volume^condition, out of the 254
items sold, 64 were healthy, 133 were unhealthy, and 57 were
neutral. Examining only the Bhealthy^and Bunhealthy^items,
the results of a chi-square analysis show that a higher percent-
age of healthy items were sold when the ambient music vol-
ume was low (vs. high) (Proportion
low-volume
= 42.92% vs.
Proportion
high-volume
=32.49%;χ
2
=4.79,p<.05).
Subsequently, we obtained sales data for the Wednesdays
and Fridays for the week preceding and following our study
week; we wanted to make sure that sales of healthy items were
not inherently lower on Fridays. Interestingly, while there was
no statistical difference (p> .10) in proportion of healthy items
sold for Wednesday versus Friday, directionally, a higher pro-
portion of healthy items were sold on Friday (vs. Wednesday)
for the preceding week (Friday = 36.48% vs. Wednesday =
32.28%) as well as for the following week (F = 24.22% vs.
W = 19.57%).
The results of Study 1 support H1. That is, lower (higher)
ambient music volume led to a greater degree of healthy
(unhealthy) food sales. Next, Study 2a replicates these find-
ings in a controlled lab setting.
Study 2a: Absence, presence, and volume
level of ambient music
Design, participants, and procedure
Study 2a had three between-subjects manipulated conditions
(ambient music: absent vs. low volume vs. high volume).
Seventy-one university students (M
age
= 24 years; 53% fe-
males) participated in this study. In the Bmusic absent^condi-
tion, there was no ambient music in the lab. For the other two
conditions, western classical music was played at low volume
(50 dB) or high volume (70 dB). Since there was no additional
background noise in the lab study, compared to the field study
at the café, we were able to set the Blow volume^condition to
a lower level and still have it distinctively audible. Participants
were invited to the lab in groups of up to fourteen.
Experimental condition was varied randomly by session.
There were 22, 23, and 26 participants in the low volume,
high volume, and control conditions, respectively.
To induce the effects of ambient music and to ensure suf-
ficient exposure to the ambient music, first a filler task was
used where participants were asked questions about their ac-
ademics and major. Participants were then asked to rate their
enjoyment (BHow would you rate your enjoyment of the
music?^) and liking (BHow would you rate your overall liking
of the music?^) of the music, with the responses captured with
17 scales (1 = very low, 7 = very high). These questions were
asked to diminish suspicion about the music playing in the
background. After this, participants were asked to make a
choice between a fruit salad (healthy option) and a piece of
chocolate cake (unhealthy option) (by asking them: BIf given a
choice, which one of these food options would you prefer to
have right now?^) (Biswas et al. 2017; Shiv and Fedorikhin
1999).
Participants were exposed to the music for at least four
minutes before they indicated their food choices. Western
classical music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
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jgpJVI3tDbY) was used in the music present conditions. The
music was played through the sound system in the laboratory.
The playlist was restarted prior to each session so that
participants were exposed to the same songs in the same
order. The music was present throughout the entire session.
Results and discussion
Confound checks There was no difference in enjoyment
(M
low-volume
=5.41 vs. M
high-volume
=4.91; F(1, 43) = 1.431,
p=.24) or liking (M
low-volume
=5.5 vs. M
high-volume
=4.96;
F(1, 43) = 1.691, p= .20) of the music, irrespective of volume
level.
Key results The results of a logistic regression showed a sig-
nificant effect of ambient music condition on food choice
(Wald χ
2
=6.63,p< .01). Follow-up tests show that consistent
with H1 and the findings of Study 1,participants chose health-
ier options to a greater extentwhen the ambient music had low
(vs. high) volume (86.36% vs. 56.52%; χ
2
=4.87, p<.05).
Also, interestingly, the choice outcome for the control (Bno
music^) condition was similar to the Bhigh volume^condition
(50.0% vs. 56.52%; χ
2
=.21,p= .65) and significantly differ-
ent from the Blow volume^condition (χ
2
=7.09,p< .01). This
pattern of results suggests that the enhanced relaxation, which
we are proposing as stemming from low volume music, is
driving consumerspreference for healthy options.
Next, Study 2b replicates the key findings from Study 2a,
using a different genre of ambient music.
Study 2b: Replication with different music
genre
Design, participants, and procedure
Study 2a used Western classical music. Certain genres of mu-
sic might be perceived as more appropriate at specific volume
levels (e.g., heavy metal or rap music at high volumes and
classical music at low volumes). Also, research shows that
since the retail atmosphere is perceived holistically, consumer
responses are most favorable when different elements match
or are aligned (Mattila and Wirtz 2001). In the context of the
present research, it is possible that the music genres played in
Studies 1 and 2 were more aligned with low (than high) vol-
ume. Moreover, it is possible that the lack of alignment be-
tween the genres of music and high volume induced distrac-
tion or negative responses and these reactions led to greater
choice of unhealthy foods with high volume music. To rule
out this alternative explanation, a different genre of music
(heavy metal) was used in Study 2b. With heavy metal music
being among the most arousing genres of music (McNamara
and Ballard 1999), our choice of this type of music in Study 2b
demonstrates the robustness of our findings across a wide
range of music genres.
Study 2b had a one-factor design with two between-
subjects conditions (ambient music volume: low/50 dB vs.
high/70 dB). The ambient music was a compilation of instru-
mental heavy metal music (www.youtube.com/watch?v=
BxDiQhNO780&feature=youtu.be) downloaded from
YouTube. The music was played through the central audio
system in the lab. The audio file was restarted at the
beginning of each session so that all participants were
exposed to the same songs in the same sequence. As in
Study 2a, participants were exposed to the music for at least
four minutes before they indicated their food choices.
Fifty-three students from a major university (M
age
=24.5;
48% females) participated in the study in exchange for course
credit. There were 25 and 28 participants in the low and high
volume music conditions, respectively. To decrease suspicion
about the music, participants were asked to rate their enjoy-
ment (1 = very low, 7 = very high) and liking (1 = dislike it a
lot, 7 = like it a lot) of the music. Then, as part of a second
task, participants were asked to choose which food item they
would prefer to have: a granola bar or a chocolate bar.
Participants were also asked how relaxed they felt (1= not at
all, 7 = very much so).
An alternative explanation for our findings is that music
volume can potentially influence whether participants relied
on affect or cognition when making their food choice.
Specifically, it is possible that participants relied more on their
feelings (vs. thoughts) when they made the choice in the pres-
ence of high volume music and this led to increased prefer-
ence for the unhealthy option. To test this alternative explana-
tion, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which
their food choice was based on cognition/affect (1= my head,
7 = my heart; 1 = my thoughts, 7 = my feelings) (Shiv and
Fedorikhin 1999). Finally, as a manipulation check, partici-
pants were asked to rate the volume of the music (1 = very
low, 7 = very high).
Results and discussion
Manipulation check Participants perceived the high volume
music as louder than the low volume music (M
low volume
=
3.00 vs. M
high volume
=4.71;F(1, 51) = 25.47, p<.01).
Healthy/unhealthy choices Consistent with our hypothesis,
participants chose the healthy food item (i.e., the granola
bar) to a greater extent in the presence of low (vs. high) vol-
ume ambient music (P
low-volume
= 92% vs. P
high-volume
=
52.57%; χ
2
=9.61,p<.01).
Perceived relaxation Consistent with our theorizing, partici-
pants reported feeling more relaxed when they were exposed
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to low (vs. high) volume ambient music (M
low-volume
=5.32
vs. M
high-volume
=4.46;F(1, 51) = 4.31, p<.05).
Ruling out alternative explanations There was no difference
in enjoyment (M
low-volume
=4.04vs. M
high-volume
=4.57;F(1,
51) = 1.61, p= .21) or liking (M
low-volume
=4.04 vs.
M
high-volume
=4.46;F(1, 51) = .96, p=.33)ofthemusicbased
on volume. Finally, there was no difference in whether partic-
ipants reported making the food choice based on their head/
heart (M
low volume
=3.88 vs. M
high volume
= 3.71; F(1,
51) = .12, p= .73) or their thoughts/feelings (M
low volume
=
3.84 vs. M
high volume
=3.68;F(1, 51) = .09, p=.76).
Implications The results of Study 2b replicate the key findings
of Study 2a, using a different genre of music. Study 2b had
relatively small sample size. In Study 2c, we replicate the
findings of Study 2b with a larger sample size and with a
different set of food options.
Study 2c: Replication with a larger sample size
Design, participants, and procedure
The design and procedure were identical to that of Study 2b
except that participants choose between a salad and a pizza;
also, while Study 2b had dichotomous choice for the depen-
dent variable, Study 2c captured preference through a 17
scale (1 = definitely salad, 7 = definitely pizza). One hundred
seventy-eight university students (M
age
= 24; 52% females)
participated in this study in exchange for extra credit. Four
participants did not follow instructions and put in values of
either 1 or 7 for all the responses. These four participants were
screened out, leaving us with a sample of 174 participants
(with 83 in Blow volume^and 91 in Bhigh volume^).
Results and discussion
Manipulation check Participants in the high (vs. low) volume
condition rated the volume ofthe music as significantly louder
(4.46 vs. 3.63; F(1, 172) = 26.83, p<.01).
Healthy/unhealthy choices Participants had a stronger prefer-
ence for the unhealthy item (pizza) when they were exposed to
the high (vs. low) volume ambient music (M
high volume
=4.86
vs. M
low volume
=4.12;F(1, 172) = 4.38, p<.05).
Ruling out alternative explanations There was no difference
in enjoyment (17scale)(M
low-volume
=3.07vs. M
high-volume
=3.43; F(1, 172) = 2.10, p=.15)orliking(17scale)(M
low
volume
=4.07vs.M
high volume
=4.36;F(1, 172) = 1.09, p=.30)
of the music based on volume. There was also no difference in
whether participants reported making the food choice based
on their thoughts/feelings (M
low volume
=4.07vs. M
high volume
=4.31; F(1, 168) = .58, p= .45) or their head/heart (M
low vol-
ume
=3.68 vs. M
high volume
=3.56; F(1, 167) = .14, p=.71).
Four (five) participants did not answer the questions related to
thoughts/feelings (head/heart).
Implications The results of Study 2c replicate the results of
Study 2b with a larger sample size. Next, Study 3a examines
our theorization that the effects of low (vs. high) volume on
food choices are driven by induced relaxation, through a test
of moderation.
Study 3a: Ambient music and moderating
effects of induced relaxation
The results of our previous studies demonstrate greater pref-
erence for healthier options with low versus high volume am-
bient music. We theorized that this pattern of results is due to
enhanced relaxation induced by low (vs. high) volume music.
Comparison of the Bhigh volume^condition to the control/no
music condition in Study 2a supports our prediction that the
effects of music volume on food choices are being driven
primarily by the low volume condition. Studies 3a and 3b
provide additional tests of this theorization through the mod-
erating effects of induced relaxation. If our theorizing holds,
then the effects observed in Studies 12shouldbeweakened
when relaxation is induced. That is, if participants are already
relaxed (e.g., througha relaxation inducing priming task), then
low volume ambient music volume would not have any addi-
tional relaxing effects to influence food choices. To elaborate,
in the absence of any relaxation inducement, low (vs. high)
volume ambient music would lead to healthier food choices.
However, when relaxation is induced, the likelihood of
healthy food choices would be similar for both low and high
volume ambient music since participants are already relaxed.
If the results of Study 3 are in these predicted directions, then
that would also provide evidence for our theorizing. Formally
stated:
H2: Low (vs. high) volume ambient music will lead to greater
preference for healthy foods, in the absence of any in-
duced relaxation. This effect will get attenuated when
relaxation is induced.
Design, participants, and procedure
Study 3a tested H2 with a 2 (ambient music volume: low vs.
high) X 2 (relaxation prime: absent vs. present) between-
subjects experiment. Ninety-seven students (M
age
=24years;
43% females) from a major U.S. university participated in
exchange for course credit.
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Similar to the procedure in Study 2a, ambient music was
playing at a high (70 dB) or low volume (50 dB) when par-
ticipants entered the lab. The music was classical piano music
(i.e., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgpJVI3tDbY) that
was played through the audio system in the lab. The music
was restarted prior to the beginning of each session so that all
participants heard the same music pieces in the same order.
Also, as in Study 2a, to allow the relaxing effects of the
ambient music to set in, participants were asked to complete
a couple of filler questions related to their likely major. They
were also asked to evaluate the music. As a result, participants
were exposed to the music several minutes before they
indicated their food choices.
The second factor was manipulated through a priming task
(Pierro et al. 2008; Weiner et al. 1979). For the Brelaxation
prime present^conditions, participants were asked to take a
moment and think back to a time when they were very
relaxed. They were then asked to write an essay describing
this relaxing time and situation in as much detail as possi-
ble. (Participants in the Brelaxation prime absent^condi-
tions did not complete the writing task.) After this, for the
key dependent variable, participants were given the option
to choose between fruit salad (healthy) and chocolate cake
(unhealthy).
Results and discussion
The results of a 2X2 logistic regression revealed a significant
interaction effect on food choice (χ
2
=3.88,p< .05). Follow-
up tests showed that when relaxation was not induced, con-
sistent with the effects observed in Studies 1 and 2, low (vs.
high) volume ambient music led to healthier choices
(Proportion
low-volume
= 83.33% vs. Proportion
high-volume
=
54.17%; χ
2
= 4.75, p< .05). However, inducing relaxation
increased healthy choices in the presence of high volume mu-
sic attenuating the effect of music volume on choices
(Proportion
low-volume
= 80.0% vs. Proportion
high-volume
=
82.76%; χ
2
=.06,p= .81). The cell means and sample sizes
are provided in Table 2, and the results are graphically pre-
sented in Fig. 1.
The results of Study 3a support our theorizing about the
effects of ambient music volume on healthy/unhealthy choices
being driven by enhanced relaxation with low volume music;
when relaxation was primed, the proportion of healthy choices
among individuals in the high-volume condition increased to
levels similar to that of individuals in the low volume condi-
tion (as can be seen from the above Table). One shortcoming
of Study 3a is that individuals in the Brelaxation prime absent^
conditions did not complete a writing task.
Next, in Study 3b we address this shortcoming by replicat-
ing the effects with participants across all conditions complet-
ing a writing task of equal length.
Study 3b: Ambient music and moderating
effects of induced relaxation
Pretest
A pretest was conducted to ensure that the priming task used
to manipulate relaxation did in fact induce relaxation. Eighty-
one university students who did not participate in the main
study completed the pretest in exchange for course credit.
However, four individuals did not follow directions related
to the writing task. The data from these four individuals were
removed leaving a final sample of seventy-seven (M
age
=
21 years; 58% females). Participants were randomly assigned
to complete one of two writing tasks. In the Brelaxation^con-
dition, participants were asked to think back to a time when
they were relaxed. Then, they were asked to describe the
relaxing time or situation in as much detail as possible. In
the control condition, participants were asked to think about
the brands they use every day. Then, they were asked to de-
scribe some of the brands they thought of. In both conditions,
individuals were given two minutes to complete the writing
task before they could advance to the next part of the survey.
After completing the writing task, participants were asked to
think about how they felt when completing the writing task
and indicate how relaxed, tensed, and stressed they felt (1 =
not at all, 7 = very much so). The stress and tense measures
were reverse coded. A relaxation index was created by aver-
aging participantsresponses to the three questions (α=.66).
As predicted, individuals who completed the relaxation prime
were more relaxed than individuals who completed the control
prime (M
relaxation
=5.49 vs. M
control
=4.88; F(1, 75) = 4.49,
p<.05).
Design, procedure, and participants
Study 3b attempted to replicate the effects of Study 3a when
individuals in the relaxation absent conditions completed a
writing task of equal length. Moreover, this study also exam-
ined whether the effects observed in Studies 1-3a with ambi-
ent music would hold when the volume of ambient noise
(instead of music) was varied.
The study had a 2 (noise volume: low/50 dB vs.
high/70 dB) X 2 (prime: relaxation vs. control) between-
subjects design. Ninety-two university students completed
this study (M
age
= 25 years; 55% females). The number of
participants was evenly distributed across the four manipula-
tion conditions.
Each session had up to 15 participants, who were given a
tablet and asked to follow all instructions very carefully. The
first task was the prime manipulation (relaxation vs. control).
Participants in the relaxation prime condition were asked to
think back to a time when they were very relaxed and describe
that situation in as much detail as possible. Participants in the
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control condition were asked to think about some of the
brands they use every day and then describe the brands they
thought of. In both conditions, participants were given two
minutes to complete the writing task and were not allowed
to continue on to the next task until the two minutes were
up. After completing the writing task, participants were told
that managers often consider ambient sound when designing
restaurants. Participants were told they would listen to a re-
cording of sounds from a local restaurant and be asked some
questions about it. The sounds (www.youtube.com/watch?v=-
kjHrQwemW8&feature=youtu.be) were from a YouTube clip
related to restaurant sounds. The volume at which the audio
was played was manipulated according to the experimental
condition (i.e., 50 dB level vs. 70 dB level). Participants
were told that the audio recording would play for the
remainder of the study session so that they could continue
through the survey at their own pace. To maintain the cover
story, participants were asked to evaluate the sound of the
restaurant (1 = very bad, 7 = very good). The next task asked
participants to indicate preference between two food items, a
salad and a pizza (1 = definitely salad, 7 = definitely pizza).
Finally, participants completed a manipulation check
measure related to perceived volume of the restaurant noise
(1=very low,7=veryhigh).
Results
Manipulation check To check whether the volume was per-
ceived as intended, we ran a 2 (noise volume) X 2 (prime)
ANOVA with perceived noise volume as the dependent vari-
able. The results revealed a significant main effect of noise
volume (M
low
=2.37 vs. M
high
= 4.02; F(1, 88) = 44.40,
p< .01). The main effect of prime (F(1, 88) = .93, p=.34)
and the interaction (F(1, 88) = 1.39, p= .24) were not
significant.
Food choice A 2 (ambient noise volume) X 2 (relaxation
prime) ANOVA on food preference (salad pizza) revealed
asignificantinteractioneffect(F(1, 88) = 4.31, p< .05). The
overall main effect of volume (F(1, 88) = 2.41, p=.12) and
the main effect of relaxation prime were not significant (F(1,
88) = .03, p= .86). Follow up tests showed that, in the absence
of a relaxation prime, participants had a greater preference for
the salad in the presence of low (vs. high) volume ambient
noise (M
low-volume
=3.13 vs. M
high-volume
=4.79; F(1, 88) =
6.77, p< .05). However, when relaxation was primed, there
was no difference in preference for the salad based on ambient
volume (M
low-volume
=4.00 vs. M
high-volume
= 3.76; F(1,
88) = .13, p=.72).
Table 2 Percentage choosing
healthy in study 3a Relaxation prime: absent Relaxation prime: present
Ambient music volume: low 83.33% (n=24) 80.0%(n=20)
Ambient music volume: high 54.17% (n =24) 82.76% (n=29)
Fig. 1 Study 3a results
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Evaluation of ambient sound Therewerenomaineffectof
volume (F(1, 88) = .10, p= .75), no main effect of prime (F(1,
88) = 2.01, p= .16), and no interaction effect (F(1, 88) = .000,
p= .998) on evaluation of the ambient sound.
Discussion
Study 3b replicated the findings of Study 3a, with ambient
sound instead of ambient music. Studies 1-3b involved indi-
viduals choosing a single item or limited number of items
since even for the field experiment at the café (Study 1), a
diner would likely choose a single entrée (or a limited number
of entrées) at a restaurant. However, there are many instances
when individuals would select multiple items, such as when
shopping at a supermarket. Accordingly, next, in Study 4, we
examine the robustness of the effects of music volume on
healthy/unhealthy purchases to scenarios where individuals
are likely to purchase multiple items.
Study 4: Field experiment at a supermarket
Method and results
Study 4 was a field experiment conducted at a major super-
market, in collaboration with the store management. The ex-
periment had two manipulated conditions (low vs. high vol-
ume ambient music). For the study, across two random week-
days (Tuesday and Thursday), ambient music was played at
around 55 dB or around 70 dB. The music volume levels were
determined through interactive discussions with store em-
ployees as to what levels of music volume would be deemed
acceptable to the store; these discussions were undertaken
when the store was open and customers were present in the
store. The same mix of music (pop, rock, soul and R&B, and
alternative) was played in a loop across both days; these
genres were included in a playlist based on Spotifyscatego-
rization. Web Appendix C provides the list of music pieces
that were played.
The dependent variables were the sales percentages of
healthy and unhealthy items out of total sales. The store gave
us the sales data, across all product categories, for the two days
on which the study was run. We coded each category of items
as healthy, unhealthy, and neutral, using established norms
(Biswas et al. 2017; Biswas and Szocs 2018). Web Appendix
Dlists the product categories coded as healthy, unhealthy, and
neutral/non-food. For example, fruits and vegetables were cod-
ed as Bhealthy^foods, while cakes and ice cream were coded as
Bunhealthy^foods. Items like vinegar and ketchup were coded
as Bneutral^foods. Examples of non-food items include paper
towels and body/hair care products. The total sales across the
two days of the study were $59,835, with $28,463 worth of
sales on the Blow volume^condition and $31,372 value in sales
on the Bhigh volume^condition.
The results of a chi-square analysis show that, consistent
with H1 and the results of our previous studies, low (vs. high)
volume ambient music led to higher degree of purchases of
healthy items as a proportion of total purchases
(Proportion
low-volume
= 43.72% vs. Proportion
high-volume
=
42.53%; χ
2
= 68.08, p< .001). Also, consistent with our pre-
dictions, high (vs. low) volume ambient music led to higher
degree of purchases of unhealthy items as a proportion of total
purchases (Proportion
high-volume
= 33.42% vs.
Proportion
low-volume
= 31.40%; χ
2
= 218.03, p< .001). The pro-
portion of non-food and neutral food items as percentage of
total sales was 24.88% and 24.06% for the low-volume and
high-volume music conditions, respectively.
Discussion
The results of Study 4 highlight the robustness of the phenom-
enon and demonstrate the effects of ambient music volume on
a basket of items (i.e., set of multiple items) purchased.
Consistent with our hypothesis, the low (vs. high) volume
ambient music led to greater degree of purchase of healthy
food items and lesser degree of purchase of unhealthy items.
General discussion
Stores and restaurants vary in terms of ambient music and
sound levels (Johnson 2016). Articles from the popular press
suggest that managers use ambient volume strategically to
attract specific groups of customers (Grinspan 2012), to create
an overall ambience (Salisbury 2014), and to encourage cus-
tomers to stay longer (Avant 2014). However, the results of
our studies suggest that music volume might also have unin-
tended consequences in terms of influencing consumers
product choices. Specifically, the results of two field experi-
ments, one conducted at a café and another at a supermarket,
along with five controlled lab studies, show that the volume of
ambient music (and noise) has systematic effects on con-
sumerspreferences for healthy (vs. unhealthy) foods. In ad-
dition, a pilot study demonstrated, with the help of physiolog-
ical data, that ambient music volume level influences
relaxation/excitement levels as reflected in the heart rate. We
also ruled out alternative explanations related to matching
effects of volume and music genre, as well as choices based
on affect (vs. cognition). Specifically, Study 1 showed that
sales of healthy food items increased when low (vs. high)
volume music was played in a café. Study 2a replicated this
effect in the lab and showed that consumers tend to have
higher preference for healthier options when ambient music
volume is low than when ambient music volume is high or
when ambient music is absent. Moreover, the results of Study
J. of the Acad. Mark. Sci.
Author's personal copy
2b and 2c showed that the effects are robust across a wide
variety of music genres. The effects of music volume on con-
sumersfood choices seem to be driven by relaxation induced
with low volume music as evidenced by the moderating ef-
fects of induced relaxation in Study 3. Finally, Study 4 showed
that the effects of ambient music volumeon healthy/unhealthy
food purchases hold not only in situations where consumers
choose a single item (e.g., ordering a sandwich at a café), but
also in situations where consumers choose a basket of items
(e.g., buying foods at a supermarket).
Theoretical implications
The results of this research contribute to the retail strategy
literature related to using atmospherics as a strategic tool.
Research in this stream shows that strategies related to retail
atmospherics can have a pervasive influence on customers
purchase behaviors (Baker and Cameron 1996; Baker et al.
1994). Specifically, prior studies have identified a number of
factors in retail establishments such as ambient lighting
(Biswas et al. 2017), ambient scent (Biswas and Szocs
2018), color (Labrecque and Milne 2012; Lee et al. 2018),
physical proximity to employees (Esmark and Noble 2016),
and similarity with employees (Pounders et al. 2015)thatcan
influence consumer responses. However, to the best of our
knowledge, no study has focused on the variables examined
in this research. Moreover, while research has examined how
different critical aspects of music (e.g., tempo, pitch), as well
as how the presence or absence of different types of music
influence a number of different outcome variables such as
spending (Caldwell and Hibbert 2002), store evaluations
(Spangenberg et al. 2005), and overall shopping experience
(Garlin and Owen 2006), this is the first research to examine
the effects of ambient music volume on choices between
healthy and unhealthy foods. Thus, our findings contribute
to the literature on the effects of music on consumers by en-
hancing our understanding of how one aspect of ambient mu-
sic (i.e., volume) influences consumerspurchase behavior.
Our findings also contribute to the literature related to
cross-modal influences. Research in this stream shows that
inputs from one sensory modality (i.e., vision, hearing, taste,
touch, smell) can influence perceptions in other modalities
(Biswas et al. 2014; Biswas and Szocs 2018; Hoegg and
Alba 2007). For instance, prior studies have shown that haptic
(Krishna and Morrin 2008), phonetic (auditory) cues related to
brand name (Yorkston and Menon 2004) and color (visual)
cues (Hoegg and Alba 2007) can influence taste. We add to
this stream by showing that auditory cues related to ambient
music volume can influence gustatory outcomes related to
food choice.
We also add to the literature on positive effects of relaxa-
tion on consumer decision making. Research in this area
shows that relaxation can increase self-efficacy (Manzoni
et al. 2009), driving performance (Wiesenthal et al. 2000),
and mindfulness (Goldbacher et al. 2016). The results of this
research add to this stream by suggesting that relaxation that
stems from low volume ambient music can lead to more
healthful food choices.
Our findings also add to the literature on subconscious cues
that trigger consumption. Research shows that product related
factors such as product claims (Berry et al. 2017), nutrition
information (Burton et al. 1999), and information presentation
(Burton et al. 2015) influence consumers. Other research has
focused on how factors in the consumption environment can
influence consumers. For instance, prior work has shown that
environmental factors such as ambient lighting (Biswas et al.
2017), ambient scent (Biswas and Szocs 2018), plate size (Van
Ittersum and Wansink 2012), check folder color (Lee et al.
2018), and restaurant decor (Bell et al. 1994) influence con-
sumption decisions and restaurant behavior. We contribute by
identifying ambient volume, of both music and noise, as an-
other environmental factor that can influence food choices and
purchases. While one prior study (e.g., Smith and Curnow
1966) has examined the effects of ambient music volume on
time spent in a grocery store and sales, this study did not
examine the effects of music volume on choices for foods
varying in terms of healthiness levels.
Managerial implications
From a practical standpoint, this research has important impli-
cations for restaurant and retail store managers, consumers,
and regulators. First, store/restaurant managers can strategical-
ly manipulate music volume to influence choices. For in-
stance, a store that sells mostly healthy foods or wants to
promote the sale of high margin healthy items might keep
the volume low, while a fast food restaurant might want to
turn up the volume. In the event that a store/restauranthas high
ambient noise and cannot adjust the loudness level (e.g., for
restaurants/snack bars at sports facilities or airports), managers
might want to design menu options accordingly; that is, un-
healthy items are more likely to be preferred in such establish-
ments. Also, in loud retail/restaurant environments, if the op-
portunity exists to induce relaxation, that might be a good
strategic option to implement.
Our results suggest that food retail chains need to standard-
ize the ambient music volume level to avoid the possibility of
employees setting volume levels arbitrarily, according to indi-
vidual preferences, since that can have unintended conse-
quences on food sales. In the case of supermarkets, they
should focus on the loudness level in different departments
and, if possible, adjust it based on the specific product cate-
gory. For instance, in order to increase sales, ambient music
volume should be low (high) in departments or aisles selling
healthy (unhealthy) foods. Table 3outlines specific ambient
music strategies for retail managers.
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To elaborate on some of the points mentioned in Table 3,in
supermarkets, if the goal is to reduce background noise vol-
ume, it could be implemented by using quieter shopping carts
and minimizing announcements over the intercom. In restau-
rants and cafes, background noise volume can be difficult to
control since patrons tend to talk among themselves.
However, the noise volume level can be reduced by using
silencing materials in the walls and keeping kitchen noise to
a minimum. In contrast, background noise volume can be
enhanced through an open kitchen. At a broader level, re-
tailersambient sound strategies can be factored in when
stores are being built and the use of architecture, wall mate-
rials, and flooring should reflect the strategic goals related to
ambient sound levels.
The increasing trend to incorporate cafes and bars in retail
stores (e.g., clothing stores), to influence the customersshop-
ping experiences, requires an aligned ambient music volume
strategy between the food/drink section and the rest of the
retail store. Hence, cafes and bars with an emphasis on healthy
(unhealthy) foods should be located in stores with low (high)
music volume. This type of store design possibly also leads to
a higher background noise level that needs to be controlled in
line with the strategic goals.
Also, interestingly, while there is a gradual trend towards
increased online shopping across a wide range of product
categories, this trend is relatively less pronounced for food-
related products. Hence, not surprisingly, even a traditionally
e-commerce based business like Amazon had decided to in-
vest in brick-and-mortar grocery stores (e.g., Whole Foods
Market, Amazon Go). The focus of our studies on food pur-
chases and the use of field experiments at a café and at a
grocery store are consistent with the importance of atmospher-
ics in physical stores. While prior research, in the context of
food sales, has outlined managerial strategies for other ele-
ments of retail atmospherics, such as ambient lighting
(Biswas et al. 2017), no research has examined the effects of
ambient music strategies. The present research takes an im-
portant step in that direction.
Our findings are also important for consumers since they
suggest that one way to resist the temptation of unhealthy
foods at restaurants/stores with high volume music might be
to try to relax while making choices and purchases.
Alternatively, consumers might opt to shop and dine in retail
settings that have lower volumes of ambient music and noise.
Finally, our findings offer regulators a non-restrictive means
of encouraging healthy food choices. Unlike restrictive regu-
latory policies, a sensory cue, like ambient music, can bemore
effective in the long run given the non-restrictive nature of
such a cue and also due to the fact that sensory cues would
influence behaviors in subliminal and unconscious ways.
Limitations and directions for future research
We used a combination of field and laboratory studies to ex-
amine the effects of ambient music volume. One limitation of
our laboratory studies is that many of these studies had rela-
tively small sample sizes. While Study 2c did have a larger
sample, future research should replicate the findings of our
other lab studies with larger samples.
In this research, we held the characteristics of the music
(e.g., pitch, tempo, etc.) constant across conditions and varied
only the volume. However, given that fast tempo music can
increase arousal (Dillman et al. 2007) it is likely that
varying different aspects of the music might moderate
the effects of volume level. Future research should examine
this.
The findings of our research suggest that relaxation that
stems from low volume music leads to increased preference
for healthy foods. We focused on managerially relevant vari-
ables of choice and purchase. Although we did provide some
process evidence through a test of moderation, we did not
undertake any direct tests of mediation. Future studies should
Table 3 Summary of managerial and strategic implications for retailers
Retail setting Type of retail outlet Strategic goals Ambient sound strategy
Restaurant/café/bar Salad bars, restaurants with brands
aligned with selling healthy foods,
seafood restaurants, fresh juice bars
Increase sales of
healthy foods/drinks
Low volume ambient music
(and background noise)
Restaurant/café/bar Fast food restaurants, sports bars,
patisseries, cocktail bars
Increase sales of
unhealthy foods/drinks
High volume ambient music
(and background noise)
Grocery Produce (fruit and vegetable) stores,
farmers markets
Increase sales of
healthy foods/drinks
Low volume ambient music
Supermarket Charcuteries, candy stores, liquor
stores
Increase sales of
unhealthy foods/drinks
High volume ambient music
Supermarket Supermarkets, hypermarkets Increase sales of both
healthy and unhealthy
foods/drinks
Vary music volume across departments
with higher volume in the cookie, cake,
and sandwich sections and lower volume
in the produce section.
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examine the underlying process more explicitly and possibly
through tests of mediation. Moreover, it is possible that there
could be other processes (e.g., self-efficacy), apart from relax-
ation, that might be driving the effects of ambient music vol-
ume on healthy/unhealthy choices. Additional research needs
to examine these processes in greater detail.
In Study 2a, participantsresponses indicated no differ-
ences in liking or enjoyment of the music based on volume.
However, individuals can differ in their optimal stimulation
levels with some individuals preferring low levels of stimula-
tion and some preferring high levels (Raju 1980). Would in-
dividuals who prefer high levels of stimulation still be relaxed
in the presence of low volume music or might high volume
music be more relaxing? Along similar lines, individuals
might respond differently to high (vs. low) volume ambient
music and noise based on the emotions they are experiencing
at a given time.
Ambient noise levels can vary across restaurants as well as
within a restaurant based on conversation levels and crowd-
edness. In our laboratory studies, we controlled background
noise. However, this level of control was not possible in the
field studies. We recognize the potential variation in back-
ground noise as a limitation of our field studies. In our field
studies though, both the café and the supermarket had rela-
tively quiet ambiences (beyond the music being played in the
background). However, noise levels vary significantly at dif-
ferent types of restaurants and supermarkets. Hence, the am-
bient music volume levels used in our studies are context
specific and may not hold across all restaurant/supermarket
types. For instance, music ambient music played at 50 dB at
a loud sports bar may not even be audible. We hope additional
research, building on our findings, would examine these and
related topics.
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Foods positioned as natural, all-natural, and 100% natural can be found across a wide variety of product categories. However, the FDA has not provided a formal definition of the term “natural,” and this has resulted in a surge in class action lawsuits filed against manufacturers due to the potentially misleading use of natural claims. Activation theory and the inferential processing literature serve as the conceptual foundation for three studies that examine the effects of natural claims on consumers’ attribute inferences and product evaluations. Results suggest that natural claims affect consumers’ attribute inferences, which in turn influence product evaluations. Furthermore, findings show that the provision of objective information regarding the ambiguity of natural claims moderates the effects of these claims on consumers’ attribute inferences and product evaluations. The implications for marketing management, those involved in litigation driven by potentially deceptive natural claims, and the policy community are discussed.