Friday, November 16, 2007

Should I 'A" or Should I 'B?'

(From an essay I wrote in my Sociology of Popular Music course)

After noticing the bare cupboards, the decision is made to go to the grocery store. Do you go to Store A which although closer, the overall appearance depresses you, or Store B with its sunnier disposition and better sounding music? The question is practically rhetorical and the decision is made to go to Store B.

As you walk from the parking lot to the store, you begin to notice the flowers all around the perimeter of it and the “light” pop music coming from inside its walls. Is it John Mayer? Dave Matthews? If not them, it’s got to be someone like them.

In the vestibule, you pick up your cart and notice that the song has skipped over to the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones.” Humming along to it (“I wanna be Bob Dylan”), you go through the 13 or so aisles while in a pleasant mood. You’re glad you picked B over A (after all, they play fake contemporary music) and before you know it, you’re finished with the groceries.

Paying for your food, you notice over the doors that it says, “Welcome!” in roughly a dozen different languages. After pondering why they write that in an area you notice when you’re leaving, you glide through the mechanical glass doors, put your groceries in the car, and drive away.

Another successful trip to the supermarket.

* * *

The process of going into a supermarket is normally thought of in the context of getting food, paying for it, and getting out of there. The management of the company hopes you have a pleasant time without you even realizing you’re having one. Millions of dollars and hundreds of hours are spent on this task and if people don’t think about the schematics of the store, the task is complete.

For instance, is it any coincidence that the first food item you come across is the fruits and vegetables while the last thing you come across is frozen? By having the “greens,” if you will, at the beginning of the store, it shows the “freshness” of the store and how much they take care of their non-packaged food. The frozen food being last makes perfect sense because if you put ice cream in your cart first and then spend an hour shopping, there’s a good chance that it’ll start to have melted by that point.

The brightness of the store is supplied by fluorescent lights. It gives the store a very medical, sterile look which is important due to its associations with cleanliness. But over in the cafĂ© area, which is next to the in-store Starbucks counter, where there are couches, chairs, tables, and televisions, the light comes from the windows and actual light bulbs. Over here, the music isn’t audible because the televisions (which are always set on CNN Headline News) provide the background noise instead. This is also the only area where the walls, instead of being white, sort of looks like mahogany.

The only other place in the store where the music is tough to hear is in the area where you’d find baby items, i.e. diapers, baby food, toys, etc. This makes perfect sense because you don’t typically associate toddlers with loud noises. It’s set up intentionally because in the next aisle, which is the health food section, the music from the overhead speakers can be heard.

As mentioned before, the music heard was John Mayer or Counting Crows and these artists are picked because of their catchiness and non-offensive message. A majority of the songs deal with love but nothing obviously lewd (I say “obviously” because they do play a song or two that it’s not possible to hear the sex factor unless you read between the lines, like “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones) and almost all are artists that people can name. The store isn’t looking to impress you with their knowledge of Howlin’ Wolf but instead, they’d rather play The Beatles or Jackson Browne or Jack Johnson because people immediately recognize these artists. In the case of The Beatles, the store won’t play “Let’s Do It In the Road,” but rather “I Saw Her Standing There” which has the familiar “Wooooo” chorus. While working at Store B, I’ve noticed many people singing to the songs the same way they would as if they were in their own car. Once the holiday season comes around in early to mid-December, the store changes its play list over to nothing but Christmas music. This fits along with the theme of the store changing to remind the shopper of Christmas and New Year’s.

Every artist listed also happens to be white which has a direct correlation with the average shopper at Store B. It’s mostly white, female who are in their mid-30s. Obviously this isn’t true with all customers but the ones that most often enter into the store fit those specifics. If you’re looking to appeal to that group, it would not make sense to design the supermarket to have a “ghetto” feel or play hip hop music. Instead, you give it the impression of homeliness and play music that is most often associated with your potential customers.

The simple things—music, lighting, schematics—in any store, whether it is a supermarket or toy store, matter greatly to the shoppers within it. The funny thing (and intended too) is that for this to be accomplished, most of the time the person doesn’t even know.

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