Clothes Hooks

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

DJ ToxSick draws an audience one recent Saturday as his crew forms a circle around his turntables inside the Puma store at Tysons Corner mall. With hip-hop music blasting, each takes a turn in the middle, popping and locking as they hype each other and the crowd.

"Oh, that's hot," Fat Rawk says, one hand twirling a washcloth in the air.

Onlookers bob their heads to the pulsing bass, and most eventually make their way through the doors into Puma.

Store managers like what they see at this tryout. When the regular DJ shows up for her gig, she learns she's been replaced. ToxSick and his Latino Asian entourage of break dancers attract a different kind of crowd.

Mall stores are increasingly relying on DJs as in-house entertainment, not just for special events but as a staple of high-traffic weekend shopping. They can lower sales resistance, alter moods and keep customers around longer, research shows.

More important, DJs help define a store's image and provide audio cues to shoppers about who does and doesn't belong.

"Music is a great audience sorter," says James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati who has studied the influence of music on buying behavior. "It's a nonverbal sign that says who the store is seeking to service."

And unlike visual stimuli -- sale signs, window displays -- it can't be ignored.

"We can turn away or close our eyes," says Kellaris, "but we are not endowed with ear lids, so auditory attention is automatic."

Stores started experimenting with using music to attract shoppers years ago, turning background music (played below the level of a normal conversation) into foreground music. Department stores such as Nordstrom have long had a signature pianist. There's also Muzak, music pumped through speakers that can be programmed based on the time of day and likely crowd.

Mall DJs are the next step in the evolution of sound experimentation.

Cusp, a boutique for women, opened a store at Tysons Corner two years ago. It sells trendy designer wares, such as 7 for All Mankind jeans, Tory Burch handbags and Shu Uemura eyelash curlers. It relied on DJs from the jump, stationing them in the middle of the store, like a display.

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