Science-- there's something for everyone

Friday, September 14, 2012

Should restaurants change their music and lighting?

Does it serve a restaurant’s interests more to have soft music and lighting, or bright lights and loud music? People do eat faster in the more harsh conditions present in most fast food places, but do they also eat more and/or spend more?

Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Koert van Ittersum from the Georgia Institute of Technology used soundproof wall dividers, candles and soft jazz to transform part of a Hardee’s fast food restaurant into a fine dining experience. The rest of the restaurant maintained its usual d├ęcor (bright colors and loud music). Customers were randomly seated in one of the two sections. Unbeknownst to them, not only was their table time clocked, but their leftovers were weighed to calculate how many calories they had consumed. They were also asked to rate their dining experience.

Both groups ordered the same amount of food, and thus spent the same amount of money. Not surprisingly, the people in the fine dining section stayed a bit longer than those in the fast food section. Despite this, the fine dining patrons actually ate less than their fast food cohorts, mainly because they left more food on their plates. I’d suggest that lingering too long over a fast food meal makes you lose your appetite, except that this group also rated the experience and the food higher, even though it was the exact same food.

Softer music and lighting sounds like a win for the customers, who consumed fewer calories and enjoyed the meal more. Meanwhile, the restaurant didn’t lose anything in this scenario, since people spent the same amount of money.

I actually think the benefit is greater than that shown in this study. Because all the test subjects entered the Hardee’s anticipating a fast food meal, they only stayed 4.7% longer in the fine dining area than in the fast food area. If you assume that the average person eats a fast food meal in under fifteen minutes, that translates to less than a minute longer. Not really long enough to order dessert. In a real sit down restaurant, the difference between a jarring, unpleasant ambiance and one where you can comfortably hear your tablemates may very well translate into higher expenditure.

That said, if a restaurant relies heavily on rapid turn-over, they should probably stick to bright lights and loud music.