The University Network

Dining Out? Pay Attention To The Music Before You Order

Would you still be in the mood for a cheeseburger and fries if soft, calming music is being played at a restaurant?

According to a new study by the University of South Florida, the answer is probably not.   

The USF researchers found that background music in a restaurant has an impact on diners’ food choice — for instance, louder music ignites a stronger craving for unhealthy foods, while softer music has a more calming, healthy effect.

The study is published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Sciences.

The Study

The study was conducted in a cafe in Stockholm, Sweden and led by Dipayan Biswas, a professor at USF’s Muma College of Business.

At the cafe, Biswas played various genres of music in two separate loops, one at a low volume of 55 decibels (dB), and the other at a higher volume of 70 decibels. For comparison, 55 dB is around one-fourth as loud as 70 dB.

The menu items were categorized as healthy, non-healthy and neutral (for items such as coffee or tea).

Biswas observed food sales during each loop for several hours on multiple days.

The Results

Biswas and his team found that customers who were exposed to louder music (70 dB) were 20 percent more likely to order something unhealthy than those who were exposed to the quieter atmosphere.

At 55 dB, 32 percent of patrons chose healthy options, while 42 percent chose unhealthy, and 26 percent purchased neutral items.

In comparison, at 70 dB, 25 percent of people purchased healthy food, while 52 percent chose unhealthy, and 23 percent chose neutral.

“High volume music enhances our excitement and arousal levels,” said Biswas.

This is because volume has been proven to impact heart rate. Louder environments increase stress levels and stimulation, leaving customers to crave greasy or unhealthy food, while soft music has a calming effect, making diners more conscious of what they order.

Manipulating Music In Restaurants

The researchers explain that “retail atmospherics,” or understanding the way physical environment affects customers, is an increasingly important strategy for business owners.

With this study, restaurant owners can potentially control music volume to influence customer purchases.

“This research demonstrates how atmospheric elements can unconsciously influence our food purchases,” said Biswas. “I believe restaurants/supermarkets are likely to adopt this strategy once the research findings disseminate through the popular press.”  

While previous research has looked at various aspects of restaurant atmosphere on food sales, such as lighting, scent and decor, this is the first study to look specifically at how music volume can impact food choice.

So, the next time you’re in a restaurant, pay attention to the music. It might very well be the result of a sales technique.