Have you ever noticed the plasma screens and TV monitors greeting you when you are shopping in your local Bloomingdale’s or Eddie Bauer? Have you heard the dance-club like sound systems in the Junior’s department at Macy’s or in Old Navy? All of these uses of audio and video technology are to make the shopping experience more tailored to you personally, and are part of the explosion of digital signage.
In the times of the westbound wagon trains, general stores in each town carried all of the supplies needed to homestead and run a business, from foodstuffs to broom handles to guns and ammunition. If you lived in that town, the shopkeeper knew your name and that you liked licorice whips and had a horse with a penchant for limp carrots.
Fast forward… Specialty stores became the shopping mainstay, not replacing the general store, but taking a bite out of the general’s business. Each proprietor, be it butcher, baker or candlestick maker, knew your name and the name of your kids. Personal attention was the way of doing good business.
Zap ahead further and those specialty stores came under one roof in the form of shopping malls. One-stop shopping for all your needs, whims, and desires! The downside being that with all of the additional foot traffic, the personal touch with the shopper was lost. No one knew your name or even cared.
Today, the general store has risen from the ashes in the form of hip, high-tech stores and mega-retailers. But the question remains: How to mend the rift between seller and buyer? How can a large company develop a more personal relationship with their customers?
Many retailers use audio and video technologies, including digital signage, to enhance the shopping experience. Customized content based on location and demographics is being delivered to customers using displays and devices once thought only available to NASA Mission Control: video walls and plasma displays. Demand for high-quality audio, propagated by the widespread use of home theater sound systems, has encouraged the use of better quality distributed background music systems and, in many stores, high-end foreground music systems. The Internet and technology revolution of the past two decades has also placed MTV, DVD, MP3, and DSS into many homes in the United States.
We have become an acronym-happy, media-savvy society and are becoming immune to static displays and poor-quality audio and video.
Breaking through that immunity barrier is what digital signage is about. It not only makes contact with people, it delivers finely targeted advertising. For the retailer, it attracts the right type of customer and extends the time spent in a store, which leads to increased sales. By selling advertising slots to vendors, the digital signage system can also generate revenue and increase brand awareness.
I’m Sold! So, Where Do I Go From Here?
There are two major points to consider when approaching digital signage: content and delivery.
The first question to ask when considering any form of digital signage is, “What message are we trying to convey?” Clients often want to have the whizbang look of a plasma display, but have no idea what kind of content they want onscreen. The phrase “content is king” is fully applicable here; so careful consideration of what the display is going to show is paramount.
To begin, look at the demographics of your store and ask: What is the target audience? Who are you selling to? What does the customer need to know about your store/product? What will extend browsing time and increase sales?
Things to consider for content source material are your company’s television and printed advertisements, vendor ads and other custom-produced content. The ability to integrate streaming content, like local weather, sports scores, and store specials and is another possibility. Keep in mind that there are licensing considerations when showing things like professional sports, films, and videos.
It is most likely that an advertising firm, a media management company, or the retailer’s merchandising department itself will create the digital signage content, but how does the content get organized for use in-store and distributed across the entire enterprise?
The content for digital signage is generally MPEG video (the same digital video found on DVDs) and computer graphics. MPEG can be played back using a computer, video server, or DVD player. Composite and S-Video signals, like the connections between your television and VCR or DVD player, are also common. When using DVD or video servers, the source material needs to be digitized and converted to some sort of delivery media, most likely DVD/CD-ROM, the Internet, or satellite transmission. There are specialized companies, usually DVD creation services, that can provide the digitizing and conversion needed. Most A/V systems integrators do not deal with content creation, however, some do provide digitizing and conversion services.
With the content being dealt with on one end, the delivery system can now come into focus. How is the message best displayed? Who should be called to design and install the system? While some content companies, like AdSpace Networks and i-Open, provide an all-in-one stop for content, equipment, and installation, the most common relationship will be with a consultant and audiovisual installer, or an audiovisual design/build firm.
The store style and the signage content can help dictate the types of displays to use. Video walls, plasma displays and LCD monitors give a hip, high-tech look, but also have a higher unit cost than television sets.
Things To Consider When Selecting A Display:
- Style – What kind of look is needed for maximum impact?
- Unit Cost – How much capital expense is required to achieve the desired effect?
- Power Consumption – TVs consume more power than LCD monitors, plasma displays more than TVs.
- Image burn-in – Static images will burn into any display. Plasma panels use specialized circuitry to help eliminate burn-in.
- Heat Load – All of these devices create heat: LCDs the least, TVs and plasmas the most.
- Display Life – The life expectancy of a video display is determined by when the display measures 50 percent brightness. Manufacturers report that the expected life of a plasma display is about 30,000 hours. That translates about 7 years, based on 12-hours-a-day use. TVs tend to have a similar life expectancy.
- Aspect Ratio – Widescreen (16:9) versus standard (4:3) TV shape. This is dictated by the content being displayed. Plasmas, TVs and LCDs are all available in both ratios.
- Viewer Distance – The expected distance of a viewer affects the size of a display. If the viewer is expected to be able to read text on a display from across the building, the display will need to be fairly large.
- Cleaning – The housekeeping staff needs to be able to clean the displays with standard equipment. This is especially important with plasma displays, which can fail within a year if the air vents are not kept clear.
A consultant versed in video and digital signage technology can answer any questions about displays.
The future predicted in Steven Spielberg’s techno-thriller film Minority Report is one where technology pervades all aspects of life, including shopping. When Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks through a shopping mall, retinal scanners identify him and projected advertisements greet him by name, and then display custom content geared to his shopping patterns.
While video displays in the local Gap store greeting shoppers by name and suggesting pants in the appropriate size is not going to happen in the next six months, other innovative uses of technology are definitely leading in that direction.
Tracking and tracing technologies, ranging from radio transmitters to facial recognition software developed for the FAA give retailers the ability to deliver demographic-specific content. Products like Prophet Systems Innovations’ “The Shadow” can track individuals, compile demographic information and have a video server play niche-specific advertising that is based on that customer’s data in the area where the customer is shopping. Barcode readers enable Wal-Mart customers to scan a DVD or video game and see a commercial for that product. Eddie Bauer and the Gap use video servers to deliver time-of-day sensitive ads to plasma displays in their stores.
The end result of this technology? We may not be to the point where technology pervades all aspects of life, but we are a long way toward the implementation of easily customizable marketing tools that have unsurpassed flexibility to target specific demographic groups and increase sales — all at the point of purchase.
Eric D. Cronwall is a senior consultant with Thorburn Associates, an acoustical consulting and audiovisual systems design firm. He has eight years of design experience and prior to joining Thorburn Associates he taught audio system design at the University of Cincinnati. Eric’s projects include Federated Department Stores (Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Burdine’s). He is an adjunct faculty of ICIA and had presented seminars at InfoComm. Visit www.ta-inc.com for more information.