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Is hearing loss friendly shopping the future?

hearing loss friendly shopping

Is this the beginning of the end for ‘muzak’ in shops?

As a hearing aid user and lover of quiet places, one of my pet peeves is piped music in retail stores and shops. Whether it’s elevator music, ‘muzak,’ or just the radio streaming through speakers, it’s distracting and makes it difficult to hear the shop keeper and staff.

So, when leading UK retailer, Marks and Spencer announced this week their intention to pan piped music in their stores, I, like many others, gave a cheer.

hearing loss friendly shopping

Here’s what Pipedown (the campaign for freedom from piped music) had to say about the news:

“From Wednesday 1st June all branches of Marks and Spencer will be free of piped music, following a decision by its executive. “We’ve listened to customer feedback, and the licence to play music in all our stores has now been cancelled with effect from 1st June 2016,” said Gary Bragg. This decision, which will save Marks and Spencer money, is the result of years and years of determined campaigning by Pipedowners and other people, who have refused to be fobbed off with bland dismissals. Marks and Spencer remains the UK’s biggest chain store, a national institution. So, this is a great day for all campaigners for freedom from piped music.

“Millions of customers will be delighted by this news. So will thousands, probably tens of thousands, of people working in M&S who have had to tolerate non-stop music not of their choice all day for years.”

With other major retailers in the UK also opting for a muzak-free policy, is this the beginning of the end for piped music? As I thought about a possible end to this public nuisance, I started to wonder why shops and restaurants played music at all. This is what I discovered…

The word ‘muzak’ is commonly used as a term for ‘piped background music’, but ‘Muzak’ was originally a brand of background music from a US company called ‘Muzak Holdings’, which resulted from a 1920’s, invention by Major General George Owen Squier, who developed a technology that could be used to deliver music without the use of a (costly) radio. (His idea used electrical cables.) Soon after this advance, music was being delivered this way to homes on Staten Island, New York. However, as radios came down in price, the popularity of the service waned.

Muzak’s recordings used in the US workplace. The company also customized the pace of the music for different times of day, in an attempt to help their customers’ workforces to maintain productivity. However, awareness of this resulted in several challenges in court.

Muzak’s popularity declined further when competitors started to offer licensed recordings of popular music (as opposed to Muzak’s instrumental re-recordings of popular tunes). Then followed decades of people being ‘force-fed’ music not of our choosing, at times – and in places – where many of us might prefer there to be no music.

While unwanted background music in stores may be an annoyance to some shoppers, for me, with my hearing aids, it can cause communication difficulties between me and the checkout operatives. As a result, I have to resort to lipreading and making an educated guess as to what they might be saying. I have better high-pitch hearing than mid or low hearing and sometimes, if the music in a mall or supermarket is very ‘tinny’ and intrusive, I can start to feel overwhelmed by it – a kind of ‘sensory overload’ – and this leads to me feeling stressed. I have been known to switch off my hearing aid when that happens – but that in itself leads to a different kind of stress – that of being hyper-alert to make sure I’m not missing anyone who might be about to speak to me or to avoid being bumped by a shopping cart. Music-free shopping is an altogether more pleasurable affair for me.

In restaurants, my husband and I often ask for the volume of the music to be turned down if we’re finding communicating too difficult. Last time we did this, we were in a pizza parlor. We explained to the waitress that with hearing aids the music coming from the speakers was making it difficult for me to hear what my husband was saying. She was really nice about turning down the music, but after 10 minutes or so, one of her colleagues turned the volume back up. Our waitress threw me an apologetic look and so I beckoned her over to our table and asked very politely if she’d mind explaining to the team why the music had been turned down and about the difficulties I was having. She seemed fine with this and she gave me a ‘thumbs up’ as the volume was lowered once more. As we left, I made a point of thanking the team and I left a generous tip.

So, is the M&S music ban the shape of things to come? I sincerely hope so!

What experiences have you had of intrusive ‘background’ music? Has it over-shadowed your experience in a shop, mall or restaurant? Did you let the staff know it was causing you a problem? I’d love to hear your thoughts on hearing loss friendly shopping experiences.

Author Details
Phonak hEARo, Angie is a freelance journalist and content writer. Angie was diagnosed with Otosclerosis in her right ear at the age of 30. In 2011, she suffered sudden profound hearing loss in her left ear. She uses a Phonak CROS II with a Phonak Audéo V hearing aid. You can follow Angie on Twitter @hearinglosshour and join in #HearingLossHour on the first Tuesday of the month.