The new value of quiet

Why is Walmart so noisy and Nordstrom’s so quiet. And why, almost without exception, are mass-market retail environments, and the packaging contained within them, a visual and aural riot while more upscale retail stores are often a study in calm. Where did this come from?

Dwight Garner has a review in the NY Times, titled Meditations on Noise, that reviews three books on the cultural implications of noise in our lives. Here is a quote from his review that got me thinking.

“You can judge a person’s clout — his or her social and political standing — by witnessing how much racket he or she must regularly endure. Those who lack silence in their lives tend to be the politically weak, whether the poor (investment bankers don’t live near runways) or laborers or soldiers or prisoners or children. In creating noise that others must live with, we display our contempt for those weaker than ourselves. Hear us roar; eat our exhaust.”

It got me speculating on comparisons between the noise an individual is subjected to in their lives and the noise they are subjected to in their retail experiences. I don’t pretend to understand why, but it does seem that the person who is likely to live in a noisy environment is the same individual that is subjected to the wild and intimidating retail experiences of the dollar stores, the fast food restaurants, and the strip malls.

While those who live along the leafy edges of Central Park or hushed suburban cul-de-sacs have easy access to much more restrained retail choices.

And the brand identities and package design within these two types of retail environments, at least until recently, seems to be consistent with the notion that mass-market is noisy, while expensive is quiet. Pick almost any product category from breakfast cereal or potato chips or skin care or chocolate bars, the pattern has stayed fairly consistent.

But there is evidence that this is changing. I have written often about the simplification taking place in the retail shelves, and a recent food store audit seemed to confirm that the volume is being dialed down in most aisles. The chip bag images above are typical of the diverse decibel level that can be seen now in most categories.

Perhaps marketers are beginning to realize that with increasingly complex and noisy lifestyles, consumers are often looking to the time spent in the stores as a more personal and reflective time. A time for all of us, regardless of means, to make important choices, quietly, peacefully, and personally without all the yelling.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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3 Responses to The new value of quiet

  1. Dennis says:

    Interesting angle!

    People exposed to noise are not only politically but also economically weaker and are therefore more likely to shop at dollar stores and eat at fast food restaurants.

    Does simple packaging means more sales, or does it depend on the type of customers?

    The social division idea: will people used to the noise will keep buying the noisy packaged goods?

    I don’t know if you have any idea about these questions but they came up while I was reading your article 🙂

  2. Paul Shields says:

    Is there an economic value of quiet areas and if so how would you go about quantifying it?

    • Fascinating, I would certainly think one way to start is to use the old real estate maxim its about, “location, location, location” when looking at the value of residential real estate. My sense is there would definitely be a correlation between value and noise.

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