Is holiday music torturing retail workers?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Dec 21, 2022

At least three Change.org petitions are seeking to ban Mariah Carey’s 1994 holiday hit, “All I Want for Christmas is You.” One imploring the Federal Communications Commission to prohibit the song from playing in retail corridors and on the radio calls it “the bane of shoppers, retail workers and pedestrians.”

An article in The Wall Street Journal details how retail and restaurant workers are being psychologically hounded by the playing of holiday classics from Bing Crosby to the Ronettes and Wham!, as well as obscure covers.

Holiday music has increased in popularity over the last decade, getting a boost from streaming services, according to Billboard. Retailers are also kicking off holiday tunes earlier in the season in sync with promotions.

Cheerful and upbeat holiday music has been shown to put shoppers in the buying mood. Playlists are carefully curated to each retailer’s atmosphere and target audience.

Elizabeth Margulis, a professor of music at Princeton University and director of the Music Cognition Lab, however, told Bloomberg that holiday music follows an inverted U-curve for listeners. Tunes initially benefit from nostalgia and not being heard for the majority of the year, but eventually cause more irritation than delight due to repetition. She said, “There’s this point where it turns around and starts going down the other side.”

The repetition can be particularly painful for retail workers. The WSJ article highlighted retail associates’ struggles trying to tune out the seemingly round-the-clock jingles. One of the nearly 200 commentators to the article said, “I really like Christmas music, but if I had to listen to it non-stop, I’d feel the same way these poor employees do.”

A 2017 survey from Soundtrack Your Brand, a music streaming platform for businesses, found a quarter of retail workers agreeing that too much Christmas music makes them less festive, with 16 percent indicating it impacts their work environment negatively. Soundtrack Your Brand’s founder told The New York Post at the time, “In what can be a highly stressful job at this time of year, it’s important to consider whether a store’s soundtrack is actually increasing stress among its staff.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is there anything retailers or store managers can do to alleviate irritation associates may experience with continuous holiday music? Do you find holiday music is played too much or too early in the season?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"As someone who worked the holiday season at Macy’s Herald Square for years — if you’re working retail this season and the music is what’s torturing you, count yourself lucky."
"I worked the sales floor for many, many years. After a while you learn to tune it out."
"One word: earbuds."

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15 Comments on "Is holiday music torturing retail workers?"


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Dion Kenney
BrainTrust
1 month 18 days ago

Yes, and it has been for decades. Now if only Amazon could have it playing on their website, with no option for hitting the “Mute” button.

Jenn McMillen
BrainTrust

One word: earbuds.

Mark Self
BrainTrust

“Torturing” is a little strong. I could go with “extremely annoying” — and the irritation is enhanced by the fact that the music starts in January seemingly. So my vote is way too early…

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Too much. Too early. Also should not be played until New Year’s Day.

Joel Rubinson
BrainTrust

It sure tortured me at Best Buy as a shopper so I imagine it is absolutely maddening to workers.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Oh please. One could say this about any music appropriate to the store. How about explaining why you do it to begin with? For example, the right music can increase in-store spend by 9.1 percent. Holiday anything — music or merchandise is an old dog that perennially is kicked for being too early. Smart retailers create multiple playlists for their stores and create a sonic identity. Most of these complaints come from the manager choosing one radio or internet station meant to play music in 20-minute sets that repeat. In any event, music is not an enemy.

David Spear
BrainTrust

I find this to be quite amusing. Retailers have moved up holiday product and shopping offerings nearly every year for the last 10 years, and now associates are complaining of too much holiday music? Hmmm — perhaps a shorter, but more powerful offering window might be the answer?

Heidi Sax
BrainTrust

As someone who worked the holiday season at Macy’s Herald Square for years — I can tell you that if you’re working retail this season and the music is what’s torturing you, you can count yourself lucky.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

I’m going to file this one under “first-world problem.” Torture? Really? I bet it can be irritating; I certainly get tired of it. But it’s once a year, it creates a mood for customers (and I suspect a lot of team members who aren’t as vocal but like the music) and, in the general scheme of things, if this makes you feel “less festive” you might want to revisit your “festivity” triggers.

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

Based on my experience working in the office channel one holiday, it can be annoying to hear these songs over and over. Two ideas. 1.) Play some non-holiday music during the slow times of the day to provide a break for the staff. 2.) Extend the playlist so the songs are not played as frequently. Songs like “Santa Baby” are bearable as long as it is only once per day.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Asking for a ban on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is pretty funny. At our town’s recent Christmas parade, almost every float was playing that song. I get it.

But Christmas music in-store is a holiday tradition that puts people in the mood to shop and it’s not going anywhere. Our local Target this week played holiday tunes in between pop music in both English and Spanish. It was interesting and it worked. And it probably drove the associates less crazy.

That being said, I worked the sales floor for many, many years. After a while you learn to tune it out.

Scott Norris
Guest

I had a great store and fun staff in the summer of 1993, back when Muzak systems used those giant reel tapes. We had about a dozen of those tapes which were pretty contemporary for the time, and one those had holiday tunes. They came up with a “Christmas in July” day just because — made cookies and did some decorating, swapped out the Muzak. Corporate never heard about it. Best staff bonding time ever. (But agree that un-ironically it should not be played until Black Friday…).

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

That’s my kind of event!

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Holiday music on repeat probably is annoying for retail workers, which is why having a wide variety of songs is important. That said, holiday music puts shoppers in a festive mood which encourages them to buy.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Well the music isn’t there for the employees’ benefit, so….

I realize that sounds unsympathetic, and anyone who’s spent even a day out on the floor knows it can be tough, even under the best of circumstances, but this almost borders on parody (THAT‘s your biggest complaint?) All I can suggest is keeping the volume low and the selection varied (“Leroy the Redneck Reindeer” bothers many, though I can take it or leave it myself 🙂 ).

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"As someone who worked the holiday season at Macy’s Herald Square for years — if you’re working retail this season and the music is what’s torturing you, count yourself lucky."
"I worked the sales floor for many, many years. After a while you learn to tune it out."
"One word: earbuds."

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