There's a new sign in town and it's changing the face of traditional retail signage.
It's called "updateable signage," and it doesn't much like to keep a straight face. In fact, this type of display takes pride in its ability to change at the drop of a hat -- or click of a mouse.
So what is it? According to Craig McManis, director of marketing at Pioneer New Media Technologies (Long Beach, Calif.), updateable signage is high-quality, full-motion video signage that can be changed from remote locations through the worldwide web or dedicated computer systems. And several new technologies have paved the way: powerful PCs that can crunch media-rich content; bandwidth, offering a variety of ways to distribute multiple files to multiple locations; and advances in display technology, such as high-resolution plasma display panels and LCDs.
"When you put all these technologies together, it's very powerful," says McManis. "It eliminates the time lag of distributing printed signs to various locations." Others agree. Ian Williams, vp of marketing at i-Open (an Eddystone, Pa.-based new media company), notes, "One of the real benefits of updateable signage is the opportunity to respond in real time to the needs of the marketplace."
For example, when a retailer announces a change in strategy, it might take several weeks' turnaround time to implement new signage in stores. But with updateable signage, the new message could be changed virtually instantaneously via the Internet and transmitted to display panels in an entire store chain.
Sound too good to be true? Well, every new toy has its price. The question retailers have is whether the investment will help reinforce the brand and, ultimately, translate into dollar sales.
Updateable signage sounds like a great idea on paper, but are retailers using it? "Retailers are starting to embrace the technology," says McManis, "but they can do more." For example, while some retailers have implemented plasma screens in store environments, many are using them to play music videos or run ambient imagery, rather than for self-promotion. But Pioneer New Media Technologies has worked with several retailers to implement updateable signage in their stores.
The company recently installed three plasma display panels in a Bodygear Activewear store: two 40-inch plasma panels in the storefront window and a third 50-inch panel behind the sales counter. The two window panels show video footage of women modeling Bodygear clothes, while the third panel allows employees to access inventory information quickly via the company's web site. So if a customer wants a shirt in an unavailable size, the salesperson can easily determine which store has the size and have it shipped over. According to the retailer, the panels'slim (less than 4-inch-deep) design was preferred over traditional monitors, which are bigger and too boxy.
San Francisco's Discovery Channel store at the Sony Metreon recently made updateable signage a central component in its design. Innovative Design Technologies Inc. (IDT, Valencia, Calif.) installed a 120-foot-long convex video wall, suspended nine feet from the ground, in the store's center. The system, consisting of 72 display cubes, shows archived Discovery Channel programming, animation and other tidbits designed to captivate shoppers'attention. The wall is designed to display a single image or a variety of images, and content can be changed frequently and easily.
IDT has also used its SmartServer technology to display updateable video in Warner Bros. Studio stores. By replacing its extensive control equipment with a single rack-mount computer, an amplifier and a CD player, Warner Bros. can update and maintain video content simply via modem.
But even with a number of installations in place, some questions remain. For instance, how effective is it? McManis tells a story of one mall-based store that influenced traffic flow simply by installing a small video wall outside the store, on the left. Most shoppers enter stores on the right and walk counter-clockwise to the left, making the areas on the right side more valuable. By drawing people to the display, the retailer was able to redirect the flow of traffic to the left, bringing more attention to other merchandise.
Despite the "wow" factor, retailers still have some concerns. Although Williams of i-Open says the company is currently in "stealth mode" -- devoting a lot of time to proving the displays'effectiveness at the point of purchase -- the idea still has to be tested. He notes, "We're at the beginning of a revolution in how end-consumers react to in-store environments and the information that the store presents them." However, he adds that recent research proves an increase of spending and time spent in-store as a result of updateable signage.
But experts say the success of updateable signage -- or lack of it -- ultimately lies in the retailer's hands. "It's important to tell a story," notes Brian Edwards, president/ceo of Edwards Technologies (El Segundo, Calif.). "If retailers want it to be successful, it has to be in-line with everything else that's going on in the environment." He adds that many retailers currently using video installations in retail environments don't really understand how to use it effectively.
For a recent installation at the Opry Mills retail and entertainment center in Nashville, Tenn., Edwards Technologies produced a multi-screen, multimedia spectacular showcasing local sports and music. Thirty 80-inch video monitors (grouped in banks of five around the center's entertainment court) combine with video, computer-controlled lighting, a concert-style sound system and other special effects to create an immersive entertainment experience. The mall developer's goal was to wow customers with an energetic show, and the installation does just that, with emphasis on hometown pride.
Several up-and-coming technologies may enhance the capabilities that already exist. For instance, McManis refers to wireless Bluetooth technology, a program installed in personal organizers or cell phones that acts as a kind of "window" to one's interests. When shoppers carrying such a device pass by a store window, an updateable sign could "read" the Bluetooth chip and instantly display a message tailored to that consumer.
SmartCard technology is another development, Williams says, that could enhance updateable signage. Similar to Bluetooth, the SmartCard credit card stores information about buying habits, so that a customer could slide the card into an updateable sign at a Starbucks, for instance, and voila! -- instant cappuccino.
As exciting, or frightening, as these new technologies may sound, it will take time before they enter the retail realm. But updateable signage can already be used as a p-o-p revenue generator. For instance, vendors in a grocery store could purchase promotional time on the display in much the same way they pay for better shelf placement and positioning on end-caps. The grocery store benefits in two ways: It promotes products while receiving advertising dollars.
For now, though, retailers need to get used to the idea of updateable signage and determine ways to use it effectively. Edwards notes, "As we move from the static world to one of motion, wouldn't it be nice if, during that move, we include the fact that we can now tell a story and be relevant as opposed to being a sign for the sake of a sign?"