In-store holiday music, while festive, can start to sound the same.
Try being the guy programming it.
"There are only about 25 Christmas songs; there are just 8,000 versions," said Shawn Cash, programmer for in-store music company Retail Radio. "Try and name 50 Christmas songs."
There's "Jingle Bells," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Winter Wonderland," that Judy Garland one and "Silent Night"?
"Silent Night" is a maybe.
"Most locations don't want it to have a religious connotation," said Cash, who customizes play- lists for each client.
Retail Radio, a 4-year-old Citrus Heights company started by Cash once half of the popular morning team Shawn and Jeff on KWOD (106.5 FM) and The Zone (KZZO 100.5 FM) and three partners, supplies in-house music to RC Willey, Sleep Train, Big Spoon yogurt, Mikuni restaurants and many others.
Using his radio expertise, Cash programs thousands of songs for the nearly 8,000 storefronts that use Retail Radio. Each site, he said, holds a mini-computer of songs that can be changed "on the fly" via custom software.
"Right now, we are at 25 percent Christmas music," said Terry Horsley, Sleep Train vice president of brand marketing. The Sacramento-based mattress seller uses Radio Retail in 250 stores, including Mattress Discounter and Sleep Country stores.
"Next week, we will be 50 (percent), and probably 75 in the days just before Christmas."
Companies use in-store music services, among which Muzak is best known, to enhance the shopping experience and stave off retail's enemy: an uncomfortable silence that might make customers head for the door.
Programmed music ensures consistency from a corporate level, keeping employees from making unsound music choices. Radio Retail also ensures that licensing fees are paid for copyrighted material.
On a recent evening at Big Spoon in east Sacramento, 9-year-old Priya Malelu sang along to "Winter Wonderland" as it played over the speakers. She needed to learn the song for a Christmas program a few days later, and hearing it helped, she said.
Sharon Strahan, 49, noticed Big Spoon's music when she entered the shop.
"It's a nice variety," especially during the holidays, she said. "They don't just hit you with Christmas music."
Pushing the brand
Retail Radio "stations," fashioned after commercial stations, include station-ID breaks and other forms of branding. Cash and Radio Retail salesman Jim Matthews, also an ex-Zone DJ, enlisted radio contacts such as Chris Isaak and Jennifer Hudson to record messages to go with "Big Spoon Radio" and "Sleep Train Radio" IDs.
"Instead of promoting us inside a location, we let the location be promoted," said Cash. "A program director gave me advice: 'Look at a box of Kellogg's cereal, and see how many times it says 'Kellogg's.' It is a matter of getting the brand out there."
Strahan said she didn't notice the messages, because of conversations around her at Big Spoon. But a store employee knew them by heart.
At Sleep Train, "We use (the messaging) to train our employees as well as our customers about products and services," said Horsley. Sleep Train's messaging includes mattress talking points.
When Anna Caselli, assistant manager at the Arden and Howe Sleep Train, first heard a "Sleep Train Radio" announcer ask customers if they feel a spouse move at night, it prompted Caselli to ask customers that question.
"There is a science to the right way to pick a bed," she said.
There also is a science to in-store music. Research has shown "music is going to have an impact on the way people shop," said Olivier Rubel, assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, Davis, Graduate School of Management. "If the tempo is very fast, people will make their purchases very fast and leave the store."
At Sleep Train, where customers are encouraged to try a bed for 15 minutes, the tempo is not sleepy, exactly. But the playlist of past and present top-40 hits, chosen to fit a 27-to-63-year-old demographic, is never jarring.
Retail Radio sites are unlikely to feature buzz saw guitars or screamed vocals.
"If you play 'The Long Run,' no one in your store will walk up to the counter and say, 'Why are you playing that old Eagles' song?' " Matthews said. "If you play Jay-Z or AC/DC or Korn, chances are you are going to offend somebody."
Built to be inoffensive
Though Muzak has become a generic name for in-store music, it's a company with various music services and a Retail Radio competitor.
Retail Radio does not aim for easy listening, but will adjust according to unease.
Caselli once heard secondhand that a customer was offended by a Justin Timberlake song. "We just emailed (Retail Radio), and they took it off the playlist," Caselli said.
The service also keeps workers' music choices from alienating patrons.
What can happen, said Mike Yee, vice president for IT for Mikuni, is that workers will listen to their own music while prepping, then get busy and forget to change it, "and suddenly you hear a bunch of F-bombs."
Mikuni avoids that with a Retail Radio program of "kind of top 40, like what you would hear on the radio, minus the bad content (because) Retail Radio filters the inappropriate stuff out," Yee said.
Most helpful, Yee said, is Retail Radio's blanket licensing agreement, which gives Mikuni a deal on fees for playing copyrighted songs.
Retail Radio recently expanded its headquarters and has increased sites it serves from fewer than 700 in 2008, its first year, to nearly 8,000.
Cash, 42, and his partners, including CEO Bill Louie, former head of sales at CBS Radio Sacramento, dived in despite a shaky economy.
By the fourth month, and as a potential big client dropped out due to its own financial issues, "it was terrifying," Cash said. He turned to Sleep Train owner Dale Carlsen, for whom Cash once did endorsements. Sleep Train signed on, helping solidify the business.
Cash, dressed in shorts and flip-flops (you can take the DJ out of the booth ) looked the opposite of terrified as he joined Matthews for an interview in Retail Radio's colorful conference room.
Matthews, 46, wears a suit. He joined the company two years in, having already switched to sales at CBS Radio. Radio automation was taking some fun out of being a DJ, like the segues between songs, and "I didn't want to be 50 and doing middays in Tacoma," Matthews said.
Cash, weary of turnover among program directors, said he saw Retail Radio as a way to transfer "a skill set not naturally transferable."
"I had been in radio so long, and I didn't want all that time in a career to be wasted."