The Person With the Best Music Taste in the Country is a Robot DJ Working for Morrisons

By Ava Szajna-Hopgood on at

If you’re not too proud to deny standing in the middle of HMV, all your birthday money in hand, thinking MAKE IT RAIN to Linkin Park, you’ll know music has something to play in how we purchase.

That feel good factor is the reason you’ll go in to Topshop in daylight and find yourself leaving Berghain style, way after nightfall. It’s what makes impulse purchases feel like they make ALL the sense, and it’s why, finding yourself alone in Morrisons on a Friday night, not getting any younger, choosing between two brands of dried pasta to Aretha Franklin, just makes the world feel better.

Even beyond the realms of supermarket radio, the Morrisons playlist is a thing of wonder, attracting a vocal following on the Twitters and blogz. Finally, there’s a human that gets me, you think. Artificial intelligence will never be able to replace the human mind because it will never know how well Savage Garden fits into a late-night Pot Noodle run. They’ll never know the euphoria of picking Smirnoff Ice flavours to that number from Grease. Never will theirs be the joy of vying for the last copy of The Guardian Weekend over Sade.

Oh but it will.

After years of feeling like the person-that-chooses-the-Morrisons-songs and I could be best of friends, I decided the guessing games had to stop. I was tired of imagining who this wonderful entity out there was. Where did they live? Would they consider re-locating from Bradford if they did, indeed, camp out full time at Morrisons HQ? Maybe we could all move to Bradford. Is it a 24 hour disco you specialise in?

I mean, just what kind of perfect human knows how to mix all these timeless classics, day after day? What kind of other-worldly being knows Roxy Music follows perfectly on from Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’ for a Friday night warm-up, and that The Selecter’s ‘On My Radio’ and Elton John and Kiki Dee are ideal for pre-9am painkiller runs? Was this the work of some long lost disc jockey, a lime-light shunning, former housemate of Marc Riley? A wayward final fifth member of Kenickie? Did Mark Lamarr have something to do with it? Would we have to go and find him in a pirate radio set-up off the coast of Lindisfarne?

So I called Morrisons. And they didn’t have a clue what I was going on about.

Call me maybe

I spoke to a guy called Tom Cooledge, who asked me to re-explain everything so he could get it straight. I wanted to find out who chose the music in Morrisons so they could be my new best friend. Yes, you could call it a cult following. No, of course we understand that they couldn’t make any promises for an interview. Part of me suspected maybe it was Cooledge and he was just doing a brilliant double-vet of me before he revealed his true identity. Great work Tom, you’ll fit in well here.

But it wasn’t. Thrillingly, the mystery track-chooser stayed anonymous for a few more weeks. I was to send Tom a list of questions I wanted to find out, and he’d pass them on, and I was to wait for a reply. Staying in the shadows, very cool. Perhaps this was all going to turn out more Kraftwerk than I could handle, I thought, as I took a second turn down the detergents aisle during my Thursday night shop. I’d been so naive. I should have suggested code names all along- thank god for Tom, our middle man.

Two weeks later I finally got my answers back.

What the hell am I doing drinking with AI?

There is no Trev from Trawden. There is no Danny from Drighlington. There is no-one. Because the songs we’ve been listening to in Morrisons are not chosen by a person. They are chosen by a machine, a computer, running software that's been taught exactly what we want to hear, and when.

My musical soulmate is a line of code.

Down with the fourth wall

Who decides on the tracks that go into Morrisons' music machine, though? There has to be the beating heart of a human somewhere amidst the pop and the punk? Rob Perrett, in-store communications manager at the retailer says the cult-following can be credited to a specialist team of “music designers”, creating and updating the playlists for their stores: “Our customers and colleagues listen to the music and we listen to our customers and colleagues – we always take their feedback on board and our selections are built on what they feedback.”

In answer to how the tracklist is decided though, Perrett explains that Morrisons has created a bespoke software music channel, “consistent across all our stores and including thousands of songs, which we update every month.”

He adds: “We’ve tried to craft a playlist with something for everyone. It’s mid-tempo, to keep things mellow and relaxed for our shoppers, but includes ultimate, classic and timeless pop.”

Finally, I ask Perret why he believes the business’ in-store soundtrack has such a cult following: “Music is definitely a big motivator. That’s why the songs become even more up-tempo and ‘feel good’ between 11pm and 7am for our colleagues, as they work through to night to keep our stores looking their best.”

Love ain't here anymore.

I think Tom can hear the disappointment in my voice as I hang up the phone. I realise my head is in my hands as a new dawn of Turing test visions and Ex Machina-awakenings come to light. How could I have been so stupid?

A nudge more than a shove

There will be no Lindisfarne stake-outs, no Two-Tone Records private investigations, no Wigan Casino car park reunions. My best friend is a bespoke music channel that doesn’t even know it exists. Faced with a reality too hard to process, like many before me, I look to the world of psychology for answers. I ask Bruce D Sanders, a consumer psychologist, what a supermarket has to gain from playing such heart-wrenchingly good music. Can it ever generate more than a simple feel-good factor?

He tells me there’s a lot more to it than any EDM-style formulas: “When a retailer plays faster music in a food store, people tend to make their selections and complete their purchases more quickly. What distinguishes fast from slow music depends on more than the beats per minute. Shoppers’ brains are also taking into account the loudness and accompanying rhythms, for instance. And the listener’s culture influences the speed of perceived tempo.

“Play music with lyrics if you want shoppers to select items from habit without much thought. Songs that get the consumer to notice the music head off arguments they might make to themselves about the purchase. On the other hand, if you want a shopper to carefully analyse the purchase decision, either do not have music or use music that is barely noticeable. If you want customers to try new brands or new products, delete intrusive music.”

So Morrisons has had us under its spell all along? Eyes glazed-over to Gary Barlow, mindlessly filling our baskets full of impulse buys?

Sanders adds: “Music gives a nudge more than a shove. The desire to purchase the product or service must already be there. The melodies reduce the resistances. Then once having done that, the effect is to increase both the probability of choosing the item and the willingness to pay a higher price for it.”

Swan song in aisle six

The mirage may have been shattered, but I still needed to buy some budget kitchen roll. I returned to the scene, my basket limp against my thighs, the music now weirdly creepy, over-thought. I’m no longer as forgiving. Back in the good old days, hearing Tom Jones follow up Ed Sheeran would have made me laugh: “Ah- what a post-ironic joker this gal is!” Now all I hear are algorithms and NRS Social Grade number crunching. “Oh, so this is your ABC1 offering is it?” I mutter to myself at the check-out, “I suppose you better switch to Swift after Cilla just to make sure you’ve got your Millennial swing vote covered”.

All lost in the supermarket.

It was all too perfect, a taste or sympathy too hard to discern. There was never any extra Motown, Rockabilly or Duran Duran sitting in a vinyl bag, just waiting to drop. Even the T-Rex was mathematically placed. I began to realise we all really are that predictable.

It takes a few days, but I manage to recover. I decide to put together a farewell track list, in memory of a more innocent time. I begin to plot all the songs I’ve heard across numerous trips to Morrisons and realise the list isn’t as straightforward as I had come to believe. There are some gems on there: Tom Petty, the Ronettes, Sixpence None The Richer. The kind of tracks Morrison’s music fan base would call a ‘Moztunes classic’. Like the very best of Glee and Heart FM, sent through a BBC 6 Music A list filter. My fault was believing this person could be real, that one brain could speak for a nation in such a way. Because of course, such flawless choices couldn’t be human.

While a spokesperson for Asda tell me they have their own ‘ASDA FM’ radio station available in all stores throughout the year, and Sainsbury’s take requests from colleagues for their Christmas and New Year-only supermarket music (Pharrell Williams and ABBA are both major players) Morrisons are the only ones to truly understand what a good thing they are on to. In the endless halls of strip lighting, polished lino and sausage roll price wars, of course I want to choose macaroni to the soundtrack of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’.

So I say thank you for the music, Morrisons. Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. I’ll stop asking questions now and let you get back to it.