Retail Podcast 403: Lauren McGuire on How We Experience Sound in Retail

Lauren McGuire on How We Experience Sound in Retail

Bob Phibbs interviewed Lauren McGuire, president of Man Made Music. In this episode Bob and Lauren talked about the sonic aspects of retail. 


Tell me something good about retail

Lauren McGuire on How We Experience Sound in Retail



Bob: Hey, thanks for joining me on this podcast today. I am thrilled to be speaking with Lauren McGuire. She is the president of Man Made Music. Welcome.

Lauren: Thank you, Bob. I love being here.

Bob: Excellent. So, tell me, how did you start out in the retail environment spaces? Well, actually, let me back up. So, what is Man Made Music and, bring us up to speed. What do they do and what's your role there?

Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. So Man Made has been around for 20 years, but we started in entertainment, so we do a lot of show themes. When you hear the Super Bowl on NBC or 30 for 30 on ESPN or, or any of the news on CBS, we do all of that music. But as time went on, we got into brands and spaces and technology.

So, at this point we call ourselves a global sonic studio. And what we say is we solve human and business challenges, which was sound, which is intentionally very broad, but retail is a big part of that.

Bob: Yeah. Well, as a musician and a conductor, you know, I was intrigued when I first heard Lauren at NRF a couple of weeks ago, and you were talking about how a baby can hear sound at 25 weeks.

Lauren: Yeah. It's one of our first centers to come through, and it's actually our fastest sense. So all of your first impressions come through sound. 

Bob: Wow. Now that's, that's really interesting to me because, I always think of lighting when it comes to retail, but as a sound guy, I'm always put off by a lot of sound in retail cause it's done so poorly. So how did you start in that retail environment?

Lauren: Well, you know, it's interesting, I think to understand any of this, you take a step back and we always talk about sort of primal humans. And at the core you can hear farther than you can see. So that's why sound is your most critical sense. It was a difference between, you know, you heard a rustle in the bushes and you knew lunch was about to be served, or you were about to be lunch.

So that's why sound is so critical to us. And it's so funny because in retail spaces, it's the last thing anyone thinks about and it's the thing that people put the least amount of money in as it really gets overlooked as a sense. And as we started to speak to our clients, you know, our clients weren’t coming to us for retail.

They were coming to us for technologies and mobile applications and sonic branding. But then once meeting us and working with us, they were like, Oh, what about retail? And I think when it comes to those big retail experiences where people are spending a lot of money to do everything right and make it really experiential, our forward thinking clients are realizing, Oh, sound has to be a part of this, or it'll screw it up.

Bob: Yeah. Well you know it's interesting cause as a motivational speaker, when I'm setting up, I'm putting on Motown cause that's my music. I'm old, I get it. Okay, Boomer, I get it. But you know what, a lot of the staff will say, “You have the best playlist.

And, people are like, “Well I just put on what I like,” or I just put on, you know, feel good music. And that's not really always the answer, right?

Lauren: Think about how emotionally connected that is to people's understanding of you. So it may be what you like, but as people are getting that first impression or getting to know you and the staff is hearing this music that you choose, it's very much a reflection of you as a speaker and brands need to think about it and retail spaces need to think about it the same way. You are going to connect the sound that you are hearing, whether it be music, whether it be noise to that brand and what they're putting out about themselves, and it either is or is not going to emotionally connect.

Bob: That's a great point. I know. I also had a speech one time and I walked in, it was I think, 2:30 in the afternoon, and they had on spa music and I said, “What are you doing?

And the guy's like, “Well, this is what the client wants. It's like, I don't give a dang what the client wants. They just had carbs. They're going to be asleep by the time they’re here. And so what are some of the, I mean, that's a challenge too, right? That when you don't know why, or how, you just do something.

So, what are some of the challenges that you faced in retail that maybe you didn't get in entertainment.

Lauren: You know, the entertainers get it, they get how important sound is to storytelling. I don't think retailers always take cues from those spaces. What's interesting is in all of our retail work, we take cues from scene parks cause we were in theme parks first before we were in retail.

So, we think about everything in terms of “What does it contribute to the experience?” You know, you walked into a room and heard spa music and you thought about the people you were going to be serving and their mental state, they're going to be tired. I need them to get pumped up. I don't think people always, retailers don't always think about it that way.

So how do you serve the customer? How do you tell your story is always what we need to consider. But in retail, there's a lot of x factors when it comes to sound. There's really poor acoustics. Sometimes there are these displays that people spend a lot of money on and put a lot of sound in that are just projecting it out into a space in a way that's not great.

There's lack of identity where there's the same top 40 playing, and the biggest thing we see over and over is when retailers don't control environment in a store to store location.

Bob: Okay, stop one second. What does that mean exactly? We don't control location?

Lauren: No. So employees, as great of employees they are, music is the one thing they might try to take into their own control.

And if you don't explain the importance of the music that you've chosen and why you've chosen it. I remember us doing an audit once, a client sent us around the country to audit different retail spaces. And we were blown away by, two stores within 10 minutes of each other. One still had, it was March, and they were still playing the holiday music cause they hadn't gotten a new CD and they were just like, I dunno.

And kept playing the holiday music. And then within 10 minutes in a more urban environment the store employees had chosen like hard rap radio. In a store that it definitely wasn't on-brand. So, you were walking into these two stores five miles apart and you were getting a completely different experience.

And it set such a strong tone that we walked back in and sort of recorded it to be like, this is how it feels walking into these two stores. So, you know, that idea that employees have will, and I'm not saying what I'm saying is actually you need to think about your employees when you do sound. You need to think about creating an environment that they need to live in and you're asking them to happily serve your customers in when you plan for music in the space.

Bob: I love that story. I'm writing a post today about customers' perception and you know, how people would go, Oh, perception is reality. It's like, no, because perception is subjective, right?

Because let's say I walk into that store and I love hard rap. I'm like, this is the coolest store in the world. But as a guy, as an older guy, 62, that's probably not what I’m feeling when I go in. And even worse, I go into your store, I don't care who it is, and you're playing holiday music after January 7th and I'm already going, “This brand doesn't know what they're doing, and it puts a question mark.

Lauren: And in all honesty, even if you love hard rap and you walk into the store, it was not a store whose image lined up with hard rap. So, it came off as really inauthentic. I think even anyone who loved hard rock would walk in and be like, Oh, really? Store X like you think you're cool, you're not.

Or the one guy who works here is way cooler and shouldn't be working at this store. When sound doesn't line up with a brand, people know it and will judge hard either way. Even if they love the music, they will judge a store hard if they think it doesn't line up with their image and their brand.

Bob: Isn't that that great scene in High Fidelity with Jack Black, and the music store and watch me get rid of them. I mean, that could be part of the subversive nature to music too. Right? And also, you talk about that it's not necessarily what we're adding in, but what we have to take out. Can you kind of explain that a little bit?

Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. You know, with all of our projects, not just retail, sound can be really overpowering as it goes to the point that it's your strongest sense. So, you hear it fast. You really, get a lot of impressions and emotions from it. It can pull up memories. If there's too much sound you can really be overwhelmed, confused, annoyed.

As the sound people, I think our clients are always really surprised when we will work first to take sound out or lessen sound more so than put sound in. When we talk about it's not just about the overhead playlist or whatever you're creating. I love the look of clean hard retail environments like everybody else, acoustically, it can be really deadly if you don't, counteract the effects of hard, shiny surfaces with wall features, with ceiling.

You're just in an echo chamber of other people's conversations. That can really hurt your experience. So taking sound out, whether it's intentional sound or accidental sound, is one of the first things that we tackle to create an environment that's conducive to people being open to your retail message.

Bob: So this is pretty complicated. This isn't a matter of, I call you up and say like, “Can you give me a playlist?”

Lauren: Yeah. No, and even, you know, it's funny, we actually don't even do playlists, but we will, we'll put a strategy together. We'll say, this is what your day’s structure should look like. Somebody else can handle the playlist.

You don't need to hire me to do that. Really, my expertise is, is more about walking in and thinking about the emotional customer journey, how does the brand feel? And as such, how should the store feel? And we're really just acting. We create sound around how the person should feel. That is 100 percent of what we do.

So for example, with the big flagship retail experiences, one of my clients is at AT&T and when they opened this store on Michigan Avenue, it was their first in Chicago. It was one of their first flagship stores where they were looking to create something really experiential.

Talk about the home of the future, talk about connected cars. You know, really exciting stuff that's gonna change our lives, but nobody was used to it from AT&T, you walked in, you got a phone case and you walked out. They needed to create a different impression and a different behavior.

Right from the minute you walked into the store. They didn't want people, heading to the first phone case stand and walking out. In that way, we stripped all the sound out of this space. And we started with the lobby and created a sonic art installation of such that would move around your head.

It had movement between four speakers. It never repeated because of the way we set it up. And, it was cause and effect. So you'd hear a ball bounce down a piano and you'd hear the notes and then that ball would hit something and the little firework would go off. And as soon as people walked in because of the sound was odd and unfamiliar, it wasn't the playlist you expect from a retail space. 

They would stop and look around to get their bearings and that's all we needed them to do. We needed them to slow down and look up.

Bob: Yeah, I remember that.

Lauren: And take in all of the beautiful work that had gone into the retail display. So thinking about those behaviors that you want to create, and where sounds can play a role in that is, is really important.

Bob: Well, I always say in, in retail, you know, I work on the associate training side, and it's about saying it's different here. So the way we greet somebody, the way we interact with them has to be a branded experience. And you said something earlier about that sound like, has the quickest, I forgot how you said it, but like it's the quickest sense, right? It's almost primal. It goes quickly to the brain, whereas in lighting, you know, as the eyes have to do it, things have to kick in and like, “What am I seeing? But that's not the same in sound. It's primal. And then, and then it processes not the other way around.

Lauren: Exactly.

Bob: So they feel something first. And have you noticed a shift with retail customers? I mean, I know, you know, we and I were talking earlier about, MasterCard came out with Sonic identity and people, you know, some people were poo-pooing it and silly, but I think they're on to something and it seems like more businesses are learning that sound matters.

Lauren: Yeah, I mean, welcome to the new world, and this is caused by a couple of things. You know, when you think about how our buying behavior is changing, even in brick and mortar stores, you now, now and within the next five years almost, I think universally, you're not pulling out a credit card anymore.

And we all remember those commercials where at the end of every commercial for MasterCard, American Express, Visa, you saw someone pull out a card at the end and there was this like zoom in of the card. I mean, we saw those, those ads for decades and now everyone is pulling out their phone.

Because of tap to pay and you are not going, the card is disappearing. The physical property of the card is disappearing. So how do those brands get credit at that critical moment when you get the rush of endorphins from the positive buying experience? And I think that, you know, the research shows as you're purchasing it, you're on the buying high. You get the negative feelings after you walk out the door and, and when you get your bill. But everyone should be trying to own that moment and that's creating a different race for sound. So welcome to the new world. I mean, I can't imagine that there's going to be a bank or a financial institution in the next four years that isn't going to have a sound. When it comes to ATMs, when it’s their mobile devices.

I would anticipate that that's what's going to happen.

Bob: It's almost like the jackpot sound in Vegas, right? You've won!

Lauren: It is, and for that, you know, it's funny because, there are certain, so there's semiotics to sound and the first couple of sounds that come out are all going to sound like some version of a cash, or did sound like some version of a cash register.

So like the Apple Pay sound has that familiar ring to it that has that cash register pitch that happens. And what's interesting is actually the Facebook messenger sound and that the Apple Pay sound are almost exactly the same, and they launched almost exactly the same time. So that was a little confusing.

I don't know. I think somebody didn't do their homework on that one, but we're going to start getting away from it. These brands are going to start coming up with probably a melodic or some other tool that helps them to be used and recognized so that you can differentiate. And you know what's interesting about it is that then the people behind you know you're a MasterCard client.

That you’re an American Express client. The technology is turning over now. The terminals are changing so that brands can put their sounds into them as opposed to the standard we hear when you take out your card. So it's going to be a different ball game in a couple of years when it comes to sound.

Bob: All right, so before I go to that, my next question, I just had to laugh because as you're saying that I'm going back probably 40 years ago when I worked on a retail store, and I remember the ad, the radio ad that came out, sorry, that already dates me. I'm talking about a radio ad. This woman can't, her and her husband are shopping at Christmas and they can't get anybody to help them.

And so she just says to hold up your American Express card. And then the guy came over. Well, what are you going to do? Hold up your phone and one's going to say, well, you're taking a selfie. That doesn't really work, but things are changing.

Lauren: Things are changing and some ways for the better and some ways for the worse.

And I'm also going to say that radio is back, man. So don't worry about dating yourself on that. I've got more clients talking about, you know, whether it's Euro radio or streaming radio or digital, like, it's another place that audio is really on the rise in a big way. And another reason that brands want to connect the ads that you hear in these streaming platforms or radio with what you experience in the store.

Like there's no disconnect there, like podcasts and the ads that go with podcasts.

Bob: I think that’s encouraging.

So, what's the best or worst advice that you've ever seen in retail? I really want the worst, and then the best.

Lauren: The worst advice that I've ever seen in retail is going to be, “Make it louder.” Gosh, I guess it's like, you know, I came from advertising and it's the client equivalent to "Make the logo bigger." It seems like there's a reaction to an imbalance in experience within the store, to turn up the overhead playlist. And employees will sometimes turn up the overhead playlist if they need a change, and it's just, that's probably not the issue. It generally has to do with covering conversations. You know, when, when you might be talking about putting in an application for a credit card with the store, that sort of thing.

And you don't want people to overhear this conversation or a reaction to hearing too many hangers clicking and they're like, Oh, we're going to make the music louder. And then it's just a cacophony of people trying to yell their conversations over the playlist that's happening and you're just going to make the issues worse and worse.

Bob: I'd also say the employees don't have any energy themselves, and they're kind of on their phones behind the counter, not doing anything. So someone's like, well, just bump up the music. That'll add energy. Right? And that'll get customers excited. But no.

Lauren: No, it just creates a really overwhelming sound. I honestly think that the number one piece of advice that I see is about, or the number one thing that we've seen is retail locations who choose really good acoustical materials. I just feel like it's at the back of everyone's brains. And, you know, if you think about Chipotle, for instance, it was one of the first things I noticed in all of their stores, they have hard walls. They have the glass that's in front of the food and that's, you know, hygiene. They have the wooden walls, but every single one of them has a bump out of those wooden walls with acoustical material behind them and perforation in the wood.

And Chipotle generally sounds good. They pay attention to the music, they pay attention to the volume, and they've paid really close attention to the fact that they wanted to put in metal chairs and metal benches and hard floors. So they worked really hard on a beautiful but mindful acoustical treatment on the walls.

And you know, from build out to think about that stuff, you only need to do it once. It's not like signage that you need to change out every couple of months and spend money on. Do it once right and you've really set yourself up for success.

Bob: I love that. Those are great, great examples. So do you have any advice for retail owners? I mean, you know, we have people all the way from, multinational companies all the way down to the smaller mom and pops and everybody is looking for, well, you piqued my interest. So what, what kind of advice could you give them? I mean, obviously. Wait till the end of the show when you can contact Lauren directly, but in the meantime, what would be some advice you might have?

Lauren: Talk to employees is the number one thing and qualitative research. Qualitative research is not our go to research. We really love quantitative research for everything we create. But when it comes to employees, it's my favorite. So, and it's not about what kind of music do you want to listen to?

That is the wrong question. As we go through these exercises, you talk to the employee about why do you work for this brand? What does this brand mean to you?  


What does it speak to you? What emotions do you want customers to walk in with, then walk out with? And we do something called a sonic mood board, where we just listen to music that's out in the world and say, "Does this remind you of the retail location that you work in?"

"Why? Why does this fit for the brand? Why is it not right for the brand?" Learn from them and guide from there. And even employees can even talk to you about day parting. Like we know that in general employees walk in, in the morning, and they're optimistic about their day. They have one bad interaction and it can really affect their whole day.

So at what points do they need a little pick me up? The music can't always be at a BPM that's consistent and a level that's consistent. People need change throughout their day. So really understanding your employees because they are what’s going to make your customers experience and they know the company you work for and you can really make an authentic and real experience for them.

Bob: I love that. Well, you know, this podcast is called, Tell Me Something Good About Retail. So what do you love about retail?

Lauren: What I love about retail. So, you know, as we were prepping for this podcast and you were like your retail experience. You know, I was in advertising, I was in music. I worked in retail once, in the summer of 2000 between college semesters.

And it was a fantastic experience. I worked at Victoria’s Secret, but what I still remember as a 19-year-old is the one woman weirdly visiting from Georgia who walked into this small store in South Jersey. And just was like, I would like to spend money with you today. She didn't say that, but that's what it ended up being.

And I have no idea why. You know, it was a very small mall. It wasn't a place that you generally go, but she was like, “Show me what you know, show me what you love. And the next week I got a little shout out in the regional call that they did with managers, that I was the number one salesperson of the previous week.

That only happened one time, and it was because of this woman. And you know, I still remember her. This one woman that I met for an hour and a half when I was 19, and that she made me feel so successful for something. So, when I think about retail and what I love about in-store experiences, I save my biggest purchases for in-store because connection with people who are working hard to make something successful.

And then they get that moment where it's like they did it, you know, they did what they needed to do to get you that thing that you wanted. And I think in this world of digital technology, that human interaction and experience doesn't, we don't get to do that very much. So that's my favorite part about retail.

Bob: I love that. That's, you know, it goes with my thing that, you know, brick and mortar can do what online, by design, can't do. And that's give somebody a feeling, a feeling they matter. And people that feel they matter buy more. Right? 

Lauren: Exactly. And someday I hope to be that lady to someone.

Bob: Nice. Well, I think this has been a great conversation.

I really appreciate you being here, Lauren. And I think the whole idea of what do you want to feel when you walk into a store, at what day point and what do you want them to take out of there? It still comes that same idea. What do you want them to feel? And I think the smart retailers understand that there's a lot that we do, we don't even know that we're influencing it. So it's time we dedicate ourselves to understanding more certainly about sound. So how do we find out more about you and your company?

Lauren: Oh, sure. So, That's the easiest way to find out about more of what we do, which includes electric cars and robots that clean your home as well as television shows.

So you can check it all out there.

Bob: I don't think you ever get bored in your job.

Lauren: No. Nope.

Bob: I think there's always a cool project and you get to use your ears to figure out what the brain thinks about it. So it has been really wonderful having you on today, and I encourage all of you to go check them out and to use your ears to see what kind of environment you really take to when you go to a favorite store, what maybe you don't like about a store, and then how do you bring that together and ask those hard questions starting with your employees.

Thanks again for joining us, Lauren.

Lauren: Thank you, Bob.


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