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Who Picks Out the Playlists You Hear While Shopping?

At stores like Artizia and Outdoor Voices, choosing the music is a full-time job.

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A group of French tourists are strolling down Fifth Avenue one recent spring morning when suddenly they find themselves lured into the Midtown Manhattan location of the upscale Canadian fashion retailer Aritzia.

The pull is the soft cooing of the American dream pop band Beach House blaring out of the store’s sound system and spilling onto the streets. Within minutes, the group floats along with the harmonies, browsing racks of expensive maxi dresses and stacks of ripped Levi’s jeans. After fussing in Aritzia’s dressing room, one woman settles on a ribbed crop top and high-waisted silk pants. She admits the outfit is a bit outside her style, but she also says she’s “feeling Aritzia’s vibes.”

The entire customer interaction is so perfect, it might as well have been planned — and that’s because it was; by Sarah Lewitinn. As the fashion brand’s in-house music director, Lewitinn carefully orchestrates the soundtrack for Aritizia’s stores, concocting a brick-and-mortar experience that will impact the mood of shoppers, and their purchasing behaviors.

Every week Lewitinn, a DJ and former agent in the New York indie-rock scene, cues up new playlists for the brand’s 80 locations in the US and Canada on iTunes, crafting the musical personality that represents Aritzia’s “cutting-edge” aesthetic, as she describes it.

“The music I choose is what a girl listens to when she is getting ready to go out,” Lewitinn told me recently. “I make sure that the music will make a girl feel sexy. It will let her imagine herself in the scenario: where she’s getting ready to go out for the night and is blasting that mixtape that makes her feel good.”

The concept of “tunes you listen to while caking on eyeliner” might seem a little vague, but Lewitinn breaks down the concept even further by creating playlists for each Aritzia location.

Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

At the SoHo location, for example, she mainly sticks to hip-hop, since the neighborhood is about “whatever is cool, and hip-hop is just blowing up right now.” On any given day, artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Vince Staples blare over the loudspeakers. Lewitinn says she applies the same idea to Toronto, “which is basically Canada’s New York City.” But for an Aritzia location in a corporate neighborhood like Rockefeller Center, Lewitinn says she opts for softer music, since most shoppers are working women who “definitely don’t need any more energy. They just want to shop.” Lewitinn cues up fun yet mellow rock tunes from bands like the Strokes, the Smiths, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Vancouver, she adds, has “a West Coast feel,” and so its playlists are rich with easy music from ’60s girl groups and the Beatles.

Lewitinn has been at Aritiza for five years, but her job is now more important than ever. With a hostile retail climate forcing businesses to shutter stores by the hundreds, brands must make in-store experiences as compelling as possible.

“We could never make the claim that hearing a certain song will cause people to buy product, but the inverse is totally true: When the music in stores is off, the shopping experience will be totally off,” says Richard Jankovich, co-author of Hit Brands: How Music Builds Value for the World’s Smartest Brands and founder of the music-retail liaison network Shoplifter Music. “I remember working with Sunglasses Hut once when their sound system broke and they saw a corresponding dip in revenue because the store just felt cold and antiseptic. The shoppers were anxious.”

In-store music has always been an important part of the equation, says Jankovich, and it’s something companies are now paying closer attention to.

“You can’t just be playing anything over the speakers,” adds Lewitinn. “It’s more of a science.”

The way music gets played over a store’s stereo system has turned into a lucrative business. Brands like Gap, Anthropologie, Marc Jacobs, Urban Outfitters, Bath & Body Works, Pandora, and Cabela’s pay two of the biggest companies in the space, Mood Media and PlayNetwork, big bucks to take care of it. Kate Spade, for example, has Mood Media send playlists every month that the company’s creative team accepts or rejects. Kristen Naiman, Kate Spade’s senior vice president of brand creative, says her team works with a Mood rep on music to create a store environment with an “overtly feminine” feeling.

“We’d never want to play speedy dude music, or anything that feels aggressive, masculine, loud, or angry,” Naiman says. “We tell them we want a mix of music that’s super poppy and super classic, and will feel nice and soothing so shoppers can sink into our store environment.”

John Crooke, the vice president of global brand development at PlayNetwork, which counts Vans, Uniqlo, and Levi’s as clients, says his company offers a “boutique service” that goes far beyond simply DJing.

“We become an extension of the brand,” Crooke says. “We learn their marketing strategy, meet the design team, and do our best to learn who the customer is and then create a holistic auditory experience from there.”

Crooke notes that a big service like PlayNetwork takes care of headaches like licensing (since music played in commercial settings needs licensing rights) and is able to stay on top of music discovery because it networks directly with giant labels, which funnel the latest hits directly to stores.

As brands catch on to the notion that customers want more human experiences, some companies feel an actual person’s music taste is a preferable touch, and employ people like Lewitinn to take care of the music experience.

The fitness apparel startup Outdoor Voices, for example, opened its first stores in 2015, and it didn’t have to look far for someone to curate its in-store soundtrack: Dev Gupta, an engineer on staff who is also in a band. Gupta describes himself as a “not-very-good musician of 15 years,” as well as someone with extensive music knowledge. Outdoor Voices initially hired a service that curated playlists but decided Gupta would do a better job.

The interior of an Outdoor Voices store.
Photo: Outdoor Voices

“I think maybe one day, those commercial music services will do a better job, but right now it’s all the same, which is a mix of pop hits and bad club music,” says Gupta.

Staff employees like Gupta and Lewitinn say that because they are so intimately involved in the music scene, they’re able to procure songs and albums that aren’t necessarily of mainstream knowledge, which makes their stores different. Gupta says algorithms and playlist production services will hear that a brand wants to be “current” and will automatically turn to rap and electronic music. In reality, he says, Outdoor Voices avoids both those genres, and being an actual employee of Outdoor Voices helps him create a store soundtrack that is a better fit.

“We want music that’s energizing, but we don’t want anything polarizing, like EDM, and rap music can often be loud and abrasive, or sexualized,” he says.

Instead, the sound of Outdoor Voices, he says, is that of the music like the Talking Heads or Fleetwood Mac. It’s a different kind of “energy” than, say, playing Drake. While the detail might seem trivial, it’s what could help Outdoor Voices hold on to its branding and ultimately stand out in the saturated market of fitness apparel.

Having in-house staff handle a store’s music doesn’t just help a brand control its image; sometimes it’s what’s needed when an image has to be altered completely. At Hollister, the teen-targeted retailer owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, an in-house creative team drums up the music that’s played in Hollister’s stores via Spotify. Those familiar with Hollister in the early aughts might recall the store’s music personality: a California-esque surf soundtrack blared at a questionably safe decibel. But following a slump of sales in the teen retail sector, Abercrombie had Hollister overhaul its brand completely.

Now a team under Matt Montgomery, Hollister’s executive creative director, handpicks the music — which, it must be noted, is played at a much lower decibel level, even tolerable for parents. While Abercrombie and Hollister notoriously blasted music to keep a certain kind of person out of stores, a recent visit to Hollister’s Fifth Avenue location revealed teenagers and parents shopping cheerfully together. The pivot has worked for Hollister, which finally saw its sales start to pick up last year.

Montgomery says the music at Hollister — a mix of pop, hip-hop, and EDM — is updated daily. Whereas the old Hollister’s marketing was completely rooted in beach branding, Hollister today is an “endless summer,” he says. It’s a more inclusive approach, which is what teen shoppers prefer, rather than Abercrombie’s exclusive and elitist marketing. These days, the store resembles a Soulcycle class with its preference for bumping electronic tunes.

“Music is at the center of our DNA, so we need a team of our own to stay on top of trends, reading blogs, watching social media, and watching the artists,” Montgomery says. “Soundtrack is everything for these kids, and we want to be relevant to them.”

A newly designed Hollister store.
Photo: Hollister

Being a teen retailer means having a thumb on whatever is trendy, and so instead, Hollister does its own research. Its creative team attends music festivals like Coachella, SXSW, Lollapalooza, VidCon, and Ultra, and constantly attends concerts too. Ted Keyes, who leads the brand’s music research endeavor, is also a professional DJ of 15 years, and previously worked as a studio recording engineer. Having a staff intimately involved with the music scene means Hollister can do its own discovery, as opposed to outsourcing that job, which would slow down the process.

Montgomery says Hollister has a relationship with Spotify, which provides data about what teens are listening to, but believes that his team “does a better job than an algorithm.” There are constant visits to Hollister stores to speak with teens about what they want to hear. This information “steers just as much as data and analytics,” Montgomery says.

“A lot of people can use the data, but I think the emotional connection is what’s helped us get ahead,” he says.

While it would be a stretch to correlate something as small as music to a company’s success, these are examples of brands doing something right. Outdoor Voices just raised $34 million in funding and managed to get Mickey Drexler, formerly of J.Crew, to join its board as chairman. Aritzia’s in-stores sales grew 11 percent last year, even during a dumpster-fire year for retail. As for Hollister, it’s currently credited as the reason why the Abercrombie portfolio is finally starting to turn around.

Is something like having staff procure music sustainable? As services like Spotify and Pandora get better, one could argue that it’s probably not where the industry is headed. Then again, good taste in music never really goes out of style.

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