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Ho ho holiday music for dashing shoppers

USC Marshall assistant professor Lisa Cavanaugh shares thoughts on the psychology of "gifting."

Ambient music plays a powerful role in retail sales. Plenty of research has probed how tempo, key and tonality influence shoppers’ moods and spending. Marketing scholar Lisa Cavanaugh has tuned into the ubiquitous seasonal music surrounding holiday shoppers, her ear cocked toward the cash register.

The assistant professor at the USC Marshall School of Business has found that “hearing songs about Santa Claus, reindeer and dashing through the snow versus ‘O Holy Night’ actually changes people’s mindsets. It affects what they ultimately buy and how much they spend.”

An expert on the psychology of “gifting,” Cavanaugh recently appeared on NBC Nightly News to explain the emotional dynamics of Black Friday. We asked Cavanaugh to untangle the confusing motives behind Christmas shopping.

Just how does holiday music affect shopping behavior?

If you hear secular music playing in the store, you’re more likely to spend — but you’ll spend on yourself. If you hear religious music playing, you tend to be more generous with others, as far as buying gifts or donating to charity. And you don’t have to be a religious person for this to be true.

How did you study this?

I set up a miniaturized convenience store right on campus. It was stocked with groceries, personal care products, paper goods and decorated for the holidays. We gave our study participants a shopping list including items for themselves and for others, and we asked them to go shopping. They had a range of choices among functional equivalents — for example, for nail polish, they could buy the $1.99 store brand or the OPI brand for $8.99.

We varied the music in the environment. It was all from the same holiday album by the same artist, but we created two song type loops — one secular, one religious. And then we observed what people chose.

What did you learn?

That seeing Christmas portrayed in a more secular way leads people to spend more money on themselves, even on everyday goods.

What are some of the other psychological prods driving holiday shoppers?

The holidays are a high-stakes time. People have a limited budget and a lot of gifts to buy. Oftentimes gifts are a way we show others that we care. We see an expensive gift as a proxy for “I value you, and I’m a good gift giver.” In part, it is this signaling process that spurs people into a frenzy.

The holiday shopping season also brings on the fear of making a misstep in terms of social expectations and relationship norms with friends, families, neighbors and co-workers. That can be very stressful.

In previous research you identified various “gifter” types.

Yes. I did some research with eBay a couple of years ago. Using an extensive national survey of women [who do the lion’s share of holiday shopping], we found four common types. Emotional gifters will search high and low for that perfect one-of-a-kind gift. Practical gifters let the recipients choose for themselves. They typically give store cards or cash. Convenience gifters look for the most efficient way to check people off their list. They’ll use online suppliers that let them choose a gift and send it to multiple recipients in one step. And last-minute gifters, who don’t plan ahead. They hurry through the mall in a panic. Which category people fall into depends a lot on the meaning that they make out of the gifting process.

How about newer trends, like giving to a charity in someone’s name? How do these work on a psychological level?

“Ethical gifts” are really interesting. They have definitely grown in popularity. Just about everyone likes giving them — it feels really good to buy a gift that gives twice. But not everyone appreciates receiving them. The reaction is largely dependent on who is doing the giving. We find that spouses get penalized for giving these kinds of gifts. But if the ethical gift comes from an adult child, people tend to be more accepting and appreciative. They feel they can take responsibility: “I raised a thoughtful son or daughter who cares about others.”

What about nonmaterial gifts, like a massage or a hot-air balloon ride?

Initial research has shown that these “experiential gifts” can have utility beyond material gifts. The neat part is it’s oftentimes unique and one-off. That balloon ride has an emotional pull.

The other key factor is they aren’t as fungible. A sweater or a pair of shoes you don’t like is easy to return. Experiential gifts are often not refundable. It forces the giver to be more precise in gifting.

Also the experiential gift can potentially be shared with the gift giver. It’s a way of saying, “I value you so much that I don’t just want to give you tickets to a Dodgers game — I want to share that experience with you. I want to carve out time that we can spend together.” Because so many of us feel pressed for time and are used to connecting digitally, in-person experiences can have more impact. An experiential gift can be a testament to how much you value that relationship.

How about the do-it-yourself gifts?

Those can be great — a real expression of time spent and caring. Handwritten notes and handmade gifts take effort and thought in a way a lot of material gifts don’t. The key to any successful gift exchange is the sentiment of “Does he or she get me?” When a friend bakes a rhubarb pie or a batch of chocolate peanut butter kiss cookies because they know that’s your favorite, it obviously speaks volumes.

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Ho ho holiday music for dashing shoppers

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