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How switching up stores' playlists can turn a brand around

Retailers are becoming more sensitive to crafting their stores’ playlists to fit a very specific brand image and consumer demographic.


With Christmas looming, Toronto's Eaton Centre, like any other mall, becomes engulfed in a great din: chattering friends, Salvation Army volunteers' bells, children's sobs and the strains of traditional holiday music coming from each store.

But as shoppers enter the Eaton Centre this year, one of the first sounds they'll hear is a playlist of electronic remixes of yuletide hits, played almost exclusively at women's retailer Smart Set.

It's part of a rebranding effort that began this summer. The chain, which is owned by Montreal-based Reitmans (Canada) Ltd., has ditched the top-40 playlists for edgier electronic music. Retailers are becoming more sensitive to crafting their stores' playlists to fit a very specific brand image and consumer demographic. And that goes for the holidays as well.

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"We really took time to dive into our consumers' tastes and to understand what they like," said Valérie Vedrines, vice-president of marketing at Reitmans. "…We need to give the consumer a reason to go into our store. The shopping experience comes from the different senses. So having a great visual display is important. But the music puts you in a different mindset."

Retailers are focusing more closely on music as a part of their branding, Ms. Vedrines said. That is exactly how the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada wants it.

SOCAN, which collects rights fees for musicians in Canada, is in the midst of a campaign to encourage businesses to think more about how music fits into their brands – and on the side, encouraging them to pay licensing fees for the use of background music.

To do that, it has struck a partnership with Stingray Digital Group, which owns television's Galaxie music channels, but also has a commercial division providing background music for businesses (and handling the licensing fees that go to SOCAN as part of it). Together, they speak to companies about whether the music they play is appealing to their target demographic; Stingray advertises its service and SOCAN reminds businesses to use music legally.

"We know that music can motivate mood. When customers are in the mood they're more likely to stay in the store," said Jennifer Brown, vice-president of licensing at SOCAN.

The only way a business can use background music without a licence is by playing over-the-air radio. Otherwise, they need to pay an annual fee. For retailers, for prerecorded background music in stores (live music and telephone on-hold music are separate things) that adds up to $1.23 per square metre, with a $94.51 minimum fee. SOCAN receives roughly $15-million in rights fees per year for background music used in businesses such as retailers and pubs – a small but important piece of the total license fees it collects.

As a result of its push, since February, SOCAN says that 32,000 businesses – not just retailers – have paid for a SOCAN licence who were not already doing so. More than 125,000 businesses now pay licensing fees.

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Smart Set was already paying fees, but Stingray's project to analyze its consumer demographic and shift the music it plays was part of this overall push.

"Everyone listens to music that reflects them. If you have a party at your house, you put music on, it's like part of your own personal brand," said Patrick Burle, vice-president of products and services at Stingray360. "A store is a little bit like that. Each brand has a personality. … Shoppers want to have an experience that fits them."

Stingray has also worked with the Aldo group of shoe stores to help differentiate their music based on the different brands, along with some of the same holiday classics. So at Little Burgundy, which has a more indie personality, Christmas music from the band She & Him plays regularly; at Spring, which attracts a younger demographic, the Glee cast, Katy Perry and The Bird and the Bee are common; and at Aldo, Cee Lo Green and Mariah Carey are heard more frequently.

"Over the years, we've started to customize more our holiday selections to better suit each brand," said Marla Garderis, who is in charge of music for the Aldo Group. "...We want to make sure it speaks to them, the same way our brand speaks to them."

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