"Jingle Bells" is bringing more jingle to cash registers at Christmas.
The traditional song and other lively, emotional Christmas music played in stores distorts time and sales resistance, making shoppers stay longer and buy more gifts, according to a U.S. marketing researcher.
Professor James Kellaris of Cincinnati College of Business Administration in Ohio said in 14 years of studying the effect of music on consumers, he found that deeper psychological motives could lie behind light tunes piped into malls and stores at Christmastime.
"If a part of the brain is engaged in processing music, that reduces the capacity to perform other tasks, such as critically evaluating the words of a salesperson or the persuasive impact of the merchandising," Kellaris wrote in a summary of his findings.
Merchants play music such as "Holly Jolly Christmas" because it is customary, Kellaris found, but he believes the companies that design the music programs and provide it are aware of the effects.
He said it was also possible that consumers responded to the music in stores in a similar way to the dogs in a famous study by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who won the Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine in 1904 for his work.
Pavlov's dogs learned to associate a bell with meat paste; when the bell rang, the dogs began to salivate. Pavlov called the behavior "conditioned reflex."
"By analogy, when consumers are exposed to merchandise and holiday music, they may learn to associate the pleasant feelings and memories evoked by the music with the merchandise," Kellaris said. "Most people are unaware of this effect."
Kellaris said that while using holiday music to put shoppers in a good mood is nothing new, he found that the music also causes them to lose track of time.
"When subjective time is less than objective 'clock' time -- that is when people think they have been shopping for less time than they actually have been shopping -- it results in more time spent in a mall or store, which in turn increases the probability of unplanned purchases," wrote Kellaris, associate professor in his college's department of marketing.
He said his studies were conducted in a behavioral laboratory, in focus groups and interviews with customers at big department stores.