30th November 2023 – (Hong Kong) “When I’m free, I take myself to Don Don Donki. All my dreams come true, they do, whenever I go there.
I can go there on a treasure hunt to find whatever I want. Whatever I want, anything I need, I can find it for sure. Don Don Don, Donki, Don Don Donki, I’m in paradise, it’s a wonderful place for me. Don Don Don, Donki, Don Don Donki, Let’s go find something good and new tonight
Don Don Donki, I feel so high, (and) satisfied at Don Don Donki ‘Cause it’s like a jungle, full of amazing things If you go there at midnight, you can find a lot of fun. Let’s head on down there tonight for a good time.”

The upbeat theme songs blaring through the speakers of your local retail store may seem harmless, but they extract a psychological toll on employees over time. While shoppers come and go, staff must endure the endless loop of background music throughout their workday. The effects of this auditory bombardment deserve greater scrutiny.

Retail chains devote careful attention to curating unique soundtracks that reinforce their brand identity. Don Don Donki and Wellcome each have their own signature style that aims to complement the shopping experience. But therein lies the downside for employees – hearing the same highly recognizable songs repeatedly over months or years can breed deep fatigue or even distress.

According to one Starbucks barista, their two-hour holiday music playlist was so grating that employees changed it to heavy metal after closing when they stayed to clean up. Music is intentionally designed to stick in our heads. Repeated exposure only amplifies the effect, as songs get imprinted onto staff’s brains in a never-ending cycle.

What starts as innocuous background atmosphere can evolve into a persistent mental invasion for retail staff subjected to it daily. Research by Northwestern University found that repeat exposure to the same stimuli can overtax the brain’s novelty processing mechanisms. The prefrontal cortex which regulates higher-order thinking is especially susceptible to this overload effect.

When the soundtrack of a store lacks variety and recency, the brain struggles to tune it out entirely. Fatigued prefrontal cortex function can manifest in increased anxiety, irritability, distractibility and burnout over time. A constant sonic assault precludes the mental rest and recovery periods staff require.

Store productivity depends on employee output, which repetitive music has been shown to undermine. A University of Illinois study revealed that exposing staff to constantly looping background music reduced persistence in completing tasks. Motivation and morale also decline with no respite from recurrent songs.

Workers experience greater frustration and stress trying to concentrate amidst distracting stimulation. Their job satisfaction falls, along with their patience for customer complaints and requests. With their cognitive resources taxed, staff become more prone to errors and lack the energy to maintain exceptional service.

Muzak pioneered the use of background music to increase workplace productivity, introducing their Stimulus Progression programs in the 1950s. The 15 minute sequences progressed through stimulating, ascending intensity patterns to maintain alertness, followed by soothing cooldowns to avoid sensory overload.

However, the evolution of retail atmospherics has skewed too far towards relentless stimulation. The salutary balance and dynamics of Muzak programs are absent. Staff get bombarded with the same narrow selection of pop hits on constant repeat. Shortened playlists also make the music repetitive for customers, but they are spared the worst effects by their limited exposure.

Brand image and consistency cannot justify the mental toll of infinite music looping. A middle ground is readily achievable to make in-store soundtracks more varied and dynamic. Retailers can adopt practices like:

  • Expanding playlist size and diversity
  • Regularly updating song selections
  • Providing periodic music-free breaks
  • Using natural recordings like water sounds to give cognitive rest
  • Scheduling different genres or tempos at varied times and locations
  • Giving staff input into playlist design and improvements

With awareness and modest efforts, chains can still brand their identities while supporting employee wellbeing. Workers serving customers all day in potentially noisy, hectic environments especially require intermittent respite from additional sensory overload. Renewed music programming can lift morale, reduce turnover, and strengthen financial outcomes. If the endless repetition grates on shoppers’ nerves after a brief visit, imagine how it wears on staff over months. With some thoughtful improvements, chains can hit a healthier note.