The Role of Web Atmospherics in Marketing

store atmospherics

Retail atmospherics, including music, lighting, crowding, layout, and temperature have a psychological impact on the behavior of customers and offer a great tool for helping you to generate more business. Web atmospherics serve the same role in online marketing efforts.

web atmospherics
Photo by Anthony: Pexels

What is retail atmospherics?

While retail atmospherics might not seem that important, and certainly many stores treat them that way, the way a store uses its ability to impact your senses, especially your sense of smell, greatly impacts your enjoyment and mood when you shop, which impacts your tendency to repeat the shopping experience and your store recommendations to others. Retail atmospherics even impact your purchase decisions.

According to one university professor:

Retail atmospherics refers to store factors such as display design and fixtures, flooring, smell, store lighting and temperature, music, wall coverings, and other elements of store’s ambience, which can be controlled by a retailer to influence the consumer’s buying mood. It is the environment inside the store that ultimately influences buyer behavior that is why it is very strategic to retailers.

Not only does retail atmospherics impact a shopper’s mood, but they also convey a brand personality and store image when maintained consistently across locations and within departments of a store. I  once worked with a client who was failing in his efforts to breathe life into an appliance store. A quick visit to the single location identified the problem. The store messaging was low prices yet the store looked like a boutique store for appliances. So, despite the low price tags on the inventory, the shopper came away thinking they were paying too much for the products stocked in the store. It was just considered too nice when compared with the warehouse stores that shoppers felt must offer a better price.

In working with the US Small Business Administration, we consulted with several businesses that later became household names. When the owners of Outback came to us, I thought the idea of an Australian-themed restaurant owned by a couple of guys who had never even visited Australia was a bad idea. However stereotypical and overdone the decor, diners flocked to the restaurant because it stood out from other competitors in the low-end steak market. I was obviously very wrong.

Scent is one of the most powerful drivers of purchase, especially when it comes to food. Ever walked past a Burger King? You can smell the grilled burger because the restaurant pumps the scent out through special blowers designed to reach as wide an area as possible with the tantalizing aroma. A bad smell, such as the one left behind from a sour mop, can send shoppers running for the hills.

Music in retail atmospherics

Let’s take just one aspect of retail atmospherics as an example, music. Studies show that slow music can encourage customers to stay in a place longer. In stores, slow music can encourage customers to take their time browsing. In restaurants, slow music could encourage customers to grab dessert and even stay for a few drinks after their meal. In restaurants with TVs, you might find diners avoiding your place for certain types of meals where interaction is desirable. The TVs might also encourage diners to stay longer and tie up a table without generating revenue.

Hence, there are situations where you don’t want customers to linger around. For instance, if you own a popular restaurant with limited tables, a faster turnaround is necessary to serve more customers and generate more revenue. Just as slow music can get people to stay longer, fast music can encourage people to leave sooner and is ideal for these situations. Fast music in stores can have benefits too – some studies show that it may encourage customers to make more impulse purchases.

Playing/using music without a license or without copyright permission could get you into legal trouble. For this reason, it’s important to make sure music is obtained legally. When playing music in a public space, always obtain a music license and stream music from the right sources – there are music streaming services for restaurants that can allow you to customize your playlists. When using music in ads, always get permission from the copyright owner. Royalty-free music is typically an affordable option for many small businesses.

Web atmospherics and other non-retail applications

While we commonly think of retail atmospherics inside the physical store, we can also talk about some elements impacting the buying behavior of your market in other ways that might draw them into your store. For instance, you might use music in your online advertising or video marketing, cool images and layout on your website, and mirror the displays in your online store.

A quick Google search for web atmospherics or online atmospherics uncovers a plethora of academic articles showing that atmospherics work online in a similar fashion to those in a retail store, taking into consideration that difference in context. For instance, images play a more vital role in web atmospherics while music is more influential in a retail application. Plus, scent, as of this moment, is impossible online.

In this post, I hope to generate more interest in web atmospherics from outside academe by making this concept more digestible by non-academics.

The role of music in buying behavior

Music is great for setting the emotional tone of an advertisement. Upbeat fast music helps generate excitement among your target marketing wherever they encounter your ads. Studies show that advertising is typically more memorable when they use music. Songs can create strong memories that we often associate with a time or place. It’s best to rely either on familiar music or new music that has a focus on catchiness. Writing your own jingle is always an option too.

Meanwhile, sad slow pianos can help a customer feel concerned for a charitable cause. Think of the infamous Sarah McLachlan ad for the SPCA. It’s so sad that many viewers simply change the channel to avoid the sound and images in the ad. It did help raise $30 million for the cause, so it was effective. See for yourself.

Using music in social media might not provide the benefits you hoped, however. Videos on social media are typically automatically muted. If the music is critical to the message of your ad, you might lose this message to many people since many users won’t unmute the ad. Even without this, many users keep their mobile devices on mute because they often use social media in a public location where they don’t want to interfere with those around them. Technically, you can always add the lyrics as captions, but this may not work if you also have to provide captions for a voice-over. The same is true for videos on your website, as well.

Visual displays and layout

Online, attractive website design and layout of your e-commerce store are just as important as it is for your physical store. Crowding products into a landing page that’s poorly designed means visitors leave as quickly as possible. In designing for better web atmospherics, consider not only clutter but colors, fonts, images, and layout in building a site that supports visitors and encourages them to stay longer. Just as with store atmospherics, web design creates a personality and builds a brand where visitors want to become customers. Choose a trait from those below that motivate consumer behavior and design your site to show alignment with this trait.

consumer personality
Image courtesy of Slideshare

Text and images

Because the internet is primarily text and image-based, it’s not surprising that these are the most impactful elements used in website design. Choosing a clean design with lots of white space, high-contrast text, and a color scheme that sets up the right brand personality and image is essential online. Depending on your target market, you should consider other factors. For instance, older users find reading dark text on a light background easier and you can improve further by using a slightly larger font. Younger consumers might find a dark background more appealing as it’s more modern-looking.

In any case, using high-quality images that look great on any screen size makes you look more professional and trustworthy to visitors. This, in turn, impacts purchase intentions.


As I hope you can see from this discussion, web atmospherics are just as important for influencing purchases and recommendations as these aspects are in retail stores. Consider the message you’re sending with your current online efforts and, if you’re sending the wrong one, you might need a complete website overhaul.

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