Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

Devangshu Dutta

October 21, 2011

At the outset, let me say that this is the personal complaint of a consumer. However, I’m airing it here because I believe it is also important to the future profitability of our readers’ businesses.

Over the last few years I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the noise in public and commercial spaces.

It may be that my sensitivity to this has increased with age, but it is a fact that noise levels have also increased dramatically in every urban public space around us. In fact, it has reached a point where I now feel that people involved in the architecture and design are either addicted to noise or, at the very least, completely immune to it.

I can’t think of any other reason why locations such as retail stores, malls, restaurants, large office receptions, and other public spaces are designed and built so badly from the point of view of handling sound.

Fundamentally Unsound

The retail soundscape, if I might call it that, is littered with noisy and uncomfortable spaces. Sound levels in busy restaurants and shopping malls can be as high as 70-110 decibels, which is the equivalent of a busy construction site. Sportswear stores play loud and fast-paced music throughout the day; are they trying to make you believe that you are in a nightclub at 11 a.m.? Internal equipment such as air-conditioning and fans add to noise levels. Restaurants and cafes are worse: noise sources include the kitchen, customers using the crockery and cutlery, chairs moving as people sit or leave, apart from the conversations going on.

For sustained exposure, 80 dB is judged to be the outside limit, and we are frequently exposed to sound levels that are higher than that, for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, it is also a vicious upward spiral of sound. Loudness feed loudness. We all raise our voices when we are competing with the surrounding sounds, and only end up adding to the noise further.

Developers spend millions on picking the right stone, fancy fixtures and creative layouts to make the place “look good”. I don’t remember ever coming across a retail space designer in India who says that the space should “sound good”. Even stores selling high-end audio equipment are badly designed and executed!

I remember sitting in a restaurant belonging to a popular Indian quick service chain after a “modern” redesign. No matter how much I tried, I could not understand a word of what my wife is saying (and that’s not just because we’ve been married for so long!). The reason my wife was inaudible was the high level of ambient noise, echoing from all the hard surfaces around us. What was worse was that I could very clearly hear a stranger who was sitting 5 tables away because the false ceiling had dome that perfectly captured his voice and bounced it across the room to me.

Toning it Down

The most basic thing to remember is this: noise has a negative impact. Not only are the customers uncomfortable, high noise levels actually interfere with the staff’s health and performance. Noise increases physical and mental stress.

What’s more, if conversations are not possible at a normal volume and tone, we have to put in more effort into hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. There comes a point when we just give up. Can you imagine what impact that has on a sale?

Studies have shown that noise can drive sales down by more than 80%. On the positive side, if sound is managed well, sales can rise by more than 1,000%! Isn’t that worth looking into?

A plea to architects and retail managers: do consider the fact that customers coming to the mall expect that space to be qualitatively different from an open market. Making a space noisy is not enough to recreate the feel of an open market – it only means that your space is noisy, and probably worse than an open market will be.

Materials selected for building and fitting out the retail outlet, the mall or the restaurant can have huge implications for how sound is handled in that space. A lot of “modern” design depends on hard, polished, reflective surfaces of stone, glass or metal. The floor, the ceiling and the walls, as well as the fixtures are all surfaces from which sound reflects back into the space, not just once but many times before it dies down. So not only do the sounds get amplified in such a space, the reflections also interfere with each other, adding to the problem.

Not Just the Sounds of Silence

Of course, just making every space a quiet “dead” space is not the answer. Sound and silence affect us positively as well as negatively.

The ancients believed that sound could transform the energy of human beings and their surroundings, and from various base sounds they created “simple” beej mantras to complex Vedic chants. Anyone who has chanted or sung hymns, or even an old peppy film soundtrack knows that sound has the power to affect our moods.

At one extreme, most people are uncomfortable in a heavy engineering factory, or for that matter, a modern shopping centre on a busy weekend, without realising why. At the other end, most people would also be uncomfortable in a recording studio, because it suppresses ambient sound as much as possible, leaving the space “empty”.

In some cases (e.g. a night club, or discount store), sounds need to be louder to ensure that the place “feels” lively, even when it is not full to capacity. In some places our enjoyment is enhanced by noise. Watching a cricket match in a stadium while wearing noise-cancelling headphones would hardly be as much fun. A school playground is “happy” when hundreds of children are running around screaming and shouting at the top of their voices, and “solemn” during a quiet morning assembly.

In some cultures and countries, normal social interaction is “louder” than would be acceptable in others. (For example, a British acquaintance mentioned to me how heavily she felt “the sounds of silence” when she moved back to England, after spending many years in Asia.)

So the key is to first define the ambience and the mood that you want to create in your space. What is the objective: who do you want to attract, who do you want to send away? (For example, operators of public transportation systems have successfully used classical music to drive away loiterers who were undesirable.)

Disney offers an inspiring example of how sound can be used. Over the years they have evolved systems combining sophisticated software and hardware in their amusement parks, such that you can walk through the whole park without the decibel-level changing too much. The music sets the appropriate mood for each specific zone. What’s more, the transitions are smooth as you move between zones.

Not everyone needs the sophistication of a Disney amusement park, but I believe it is worthwhile for most retailers to think about how sound is affecting people in their stores.

I would urge you, at the very least, to look at how it impacts conversations between customers, and between the customer and members of the serving staff, because that will definitely impact sales.

A leading cafe chain proclaims: “A lot can happen over coffee”. Yes, it can; but not if you make conversation impossible.

Try it. Tone it down. You’ll see an upswing in productivity, sales and customer satisfaction.

(Read “How Mr. Q Manufactured Emotion” in the Disney parks, on Dustin Curtis’ blog.)

Numbers and Stories

Devangshu Dutta

November 23, 2009

Just after noon, on a weekday, I bumped into a family acquaintance at one of the more successful shopping malls in the city.

The question, “What are you doing here?” was underlined by a mildly accusatory look and the subtext, “Why are you spending a week-day shopping?”

My response that I was “working” wasn’t enough; the further explanation that I was doing “research” received a dismissive smirk and ended the conversation. The fact is that I was repeating the time-honoured ritual of RBWA (research by walking around), with its seemingly aimless strolling, sidelong glances, and possibly turning over a hundred items in a dozen shops without reaching for the wallet even once. This is a ritual that is not taught in our temples of management learning. In fact, it is one of the many tens of methodologies that seem to be missed out during the course of our formal education. And very often, what we do get taught is so remote and opaque to most people that they will promptly forget it the moment they walk out of the examination hall.

I was reminded of this walk-about incident during a conversation with two members of the faculty of a professional institute on the subject of research. Most of their students, I had observed, had a narrow interpretation of research – focussed only on consumers being interrogated through a questionnaire. The students were working from the guidance they had received during the previous semesters at the institute.

Unfortunately, the students are not alone – this is also how too many people identify research, including many executives in decision-making positions. I have been frequently puzzled by the confident (brash?) statement I have heard many times: “We don’t need research.” It is only when I probe further do I, and they, discover that while they perhaps don’t need consumer surveys, there are large gaps in their decision making toolkit which can only be filled by inputs from various other kinds of research.

Sometimes the roots of that statement lie in the perception of research as an impenetrable jungle in which it is easy to get lost but difficult to find something immediately useful. Researchers, like all other vocations, have their own professional shorthand (also known as “jargon”) which they sometimes use to identify their own kind, and perhaps sometimes to exclude people who are not from the trade. Very often this jungle is created by “research-as-a-foreign-language”, which many executives are just too apprehensive or too busy to tackle.

But before you pick up the axe and start cutting away at the creepers of bi-variate analysis, quota samples, correlation and projective techniques, let me give you my very simple definition of research which I like to keep in mind when I am asked the question: “Do we need research?”

To me, research is the discovery and collation of diverse pieces of information from various sources, so that it can be analysed using multiple tools, to discover relationships, patterns and directions that can be used to draw conclusions and take decisions.

There is a purpose for which we would discover or collate that information. There may be a set of questions that we need to answer. We need to understand what are the various places where that information may lie, the different forms it might take or the different ways in which we might need to look at the information before anything useful emerges.

And, in the business context (as in many other situations), research is meant to come up with something that is applicable and directly beneficial to the business. So once we’ve got most of the answers we were looking for, it is certainly useful to stop and apply the newly gained knowledge rather than try to refine and perfect it to the infinite degree.

If this definition of research frames the context well enough for you, then you’re on the way to doing and using research well.

Despite the wealth of information available today, far too many bad business decisions are being made in the absence of good information, either because the executives have not bothered to carry out research, or have not had the capability or the time to question the research which is being presented to them.

Worse – perhaps because of the abundant data and the ease of access to it – today many business decisions that turn bad are taken on the basis of information that is presented by someone else (“secondary research” in research language), without questioning the validity of the conclusions, the structure of the study, the context in which the data was analysed. It’s almost as if we couldn’t be bothered to think, because someone has apparently already done the thinking for us – especially if it comes from a “reputable source”. (Ok, that might be smart sometimes. So let me give you a more graphic analogy – could you think of an adult bird regurgitating pre-digested food to feed the chicks? Hmm, not so pleasant an image after all, is it?)

Also, research (especially the number-oriented kind) seems too dry for most people to take in. And I think that is one place market researchers could do themselves a huge benefit if they could tell the story – especially a story with a moral at the end. That is, create the picture for the user as to what all of that information means in simple language, and also show the user how to use the information in the context of his situation or problem. Bedtime stories during childhood and good movies in adulthood work well because there is a coherent narrative, a start, a middle that is interesting and an ending that stays in the mind. You can see the relationships between the characters, and the consequences of those relationships. A good research project report could be seen as something very similar.

Having said that, of course, there are also some researchers go far beyond, who would never let boring facts get in the way of a good story! Apparently a letter to the editor of the National Observer (London) as far back as 1891 complained: “there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.” (Mark Twain famously paraphrased this in his autobiography as “lies, damned lies and statistics”.)

How many stores can you think of which are located at sites where their chances of success are exactly the same as that of a snowball in hell? How many products or brand launches come to mind, where you wondered, “what is this company thinking?!” Of course, there would have been pre-launch studies which would have showed just how successful these would be, where the stories were possibly based more on imagination than on facts.

For a decision-maker, the only way to tell the difference between bad statistics (lies) and the true story of the market is to make sure that he or she is equipped with multiple sources of information, and various tools with which to analyse them. Also, if you recall my earlier definition of research, the starting point was the definition of the objectives which a research is supposed to fulfil – if the objectives are vague or undefined, so will the research outputs be.

Numbers (quantitative research) and narrative (qualitative research) can tell us many wonderful stories about the market. Some of those stories are highly imaginative “fairy tales” because of a bad study – that shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the others which can direct us to our objectives.