Digital Signs of the Times

Retail and Consumer Goods
By: Paul Flippo, Paul Welty, Bart DeFoor

Meeting omnichannel consumer needs and closing the gap between showrooming and webrooming with digital signage.

Retail and Consumer Products Perspective

It’s indisputable that e-commerce is chipping away at brick-and-mortar sales, but physical retailers can quickly tool up with retail technology, starting with digital signage, to challenge back.

For years, business headlines have heralded the demise of brick-and-mortar retail. Amazon and other online retail pioneers have reinvented the industry as we know it. Collectively, they have generated sales of nearly $395 billion in 2016, accounting for 41.6 percent of all retail sales growth that year.1

Yet those hyperbole headlines are misleading, because save for Amazon, the top 10 U.S. retailers operate, in part, out of traditional, brick and mortar stores, including WalMart Stores, Costco, The Home Depot, and Walgreens.2 Even Amazon, which stands as the sole digital proprietor in the top 10 mix, has gone physical too, acquiring Whole Foods and its 460 stores in June 2017.

Before our very eyes, e-commerce and brickand-mortar retail experiences have morphed. Here’s why: Consumers aren’t exclusively digital shoppers or physical shoppers. A recent study of 46,000 customers at a major U.S. retailer with hundreds of stores and a robust online shopping experience showed that 7 percent were online-only shoppers and 20 percent were store-only shoppers. The remaining majority (73 percent) used multiple channels during their shopping journey.3

The world is made up of omnichannel customers, so perfecting the omnichannel offering isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s mandatory to survive in the increasingly blended retail environment.

In response, traditional e-commerce retailers of all sizes, from Rent the Runway, offering designer dress and accessory rentals, to Vistaprint, an affordable custom printing service, have inspired a new wave of physically enabled digital retail showrooms to compete with traditional brick-and-mortar retail on ease of access, product returns, and the ability to touch and feel products.

Meanwhile, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers like Albertsons and Wal-Mart are doubling down on investments in mobile, proximity and digital signage to inspire a new wave of digitally enabled physical stores that offer e-commerce pricing, a wider catalog of products and information, and the kind of right-timed, data-driven promotions that have become standard for e-commerce platforms.

However, brick-and-mortar retailers are still just scratching the surface of digital enablement. With non-e-commerce retail representing $4.5 trillion in annual sales, even a 0.1 percent (0.001) boost in traditional retail sales would create a $4.5 billion lift— a significant takeback from e-commerce retail sales. For traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, digitizing the physical store environment to shrink the gap is worth a closer look.

SHOWROOMING: Shopping for a product in a physical store but purchasing the product online. Why? To touch and feel the product. 

WEBROOMING: Shopping for a product online, but purchasing it in a store. Why? Immediate access to products, no shipping costs, easier returns, and to support local businesses. 

Digitizing Your Physical Store: The Digital Signage Industry Landscape

An investment in active digital signage brings both challenges and opportunities. With preparation, digital signage can be a fundamental tactic in competing in the emerging world of physically enabled digital e-commerce. 

To create a winning digitally enabled physical store, a single technology won’t suffice. Instead, a portfolio of technologies that includes mobile and digital signage is essential. Mobile is already a familiar tactic for most retailers, while digital signage has been far more underutilized and warrants a closer look. 

Passive digital signage has been around for many years in the form of rotating static digital menu boards, billboards, and posters but has slowly matured into more active—and effective—forms of digital signage. Spotty instore Wi-Fi and exorbitant cellular data plans for non-Wi-Fi options stunted its adoption and evolution. In addition, proprietary full-service providers are costly, require contracts, and often limit a retailer’s control over the system’s capabilities and content. Conversely, lower-cost DIY solutions are typically stand-alone and lack the benefits of an enterprise data ecosystem where multiple devices can be managed remotely through centralized tools.

Recent digital signage solutions—such as those powered by Intel and Google—offer retailers a cost-competitive option for deploying active digital signage at scale across multiple locations and geographies. The self-service aspect of these solutions further reduces the cost that might otherwise be paid to signage service providers to manage devices and content as a service.

How Digital Signage Helps the Shopper 

RETAIL: It’s a Saturday morning during college football season and an advertisement promotes items that I might take to the tailgate.

SPECIALTY STORES: I’m purchasing a new suit and can use digital signs in changing rooms to view the suit on me in various colors.

RESTAURANTS: I can order from a lobby kiosk, have access to time-specific offers like happy hour deals and high-resolution menu options.

CINEMA: When I arrive to the cinema early, I can stand in the lobby and browse movie previews for the genre that interests me the most.

PASSIVE DIGITAL SIGNAGE can be thought of as the already familiar digital menu board or the carousel of images on a billboard. This digital content is executed through advanced scheduling. While valuable, the screen simply displays content in contextual obliviousness to passers-by. 

ACTIVE DIGITAL SIGNAGE can be thought of as an always-listening, always-connected data-driven sign that is responsive to its environment.

These solutions combine sub-$200 handled devices—essentially an Operating System (OS) on a stick—with the HDMI port on any digital screen. The handled OS devices are connected to Wi-Fi which allows the OS device and screen to connect to the cloud. The signage owner uses web-based consoles to manage the devices and the content. For more on how these solutions work, consider these four key technology layers:


  • The Physical Device Layer where physical technology like digital displays, mobile devices, and proximity solutions make the digitally enabled physical experience come to life for the consumer.
  • The User Interface Layer where the signage owner uses web-based consoles to access the CMS, device management, and dashboards associated with their signage network.
  • The Cloud Layer for ingesting and processing big data and events information from the Analytics Layer and for hosting the User Consoles, Content Management System (CMS), and Device Management Consoles. The Cloud layer can also facilitate the threading together of data from external systems like Point of Sale systems, and inventory management systems.
  • The Analytics Layer for the discovery and visualization of a variety of data, including consumers segmentation and demographics. The effective use of data and analytics will drive the consumer engagement by reaching them with data-driven dayparting, promotions, and product information in a way that passive signage can’t.

Understanding these four basic layers is the foundation from which to build a digitally enabled physical signage solution. While standing up a self-service digital signage ecosystem comes with challenges, the benefits are many. Digital signage is a Swiss Army knife of consumer-facing retail engagement. Digital signage can be used to work side-by-side with mobile through two-screen experiences, and give retailers the ability to deliver rich video content, promotions, and information at a fraction of the cost and the time required to deliver the message through print.

Digital signage has been an underutilized tool in the digital toolbox compared to mobile apps. While overall app usage for gaming, banking, and travel and leisure is strong, the average person in the U.S. spends only about 45 minutes per month using mobile apps for shopping.

The Path Forward

It’s no surprise that with so many new digital retail technologies to choose from, retailers are collectively scratching their heads trying to evaluate how to choose the right ones and balance the ones they have. Challenges and opportunities can vary dramatically from retailer to retailer, but the following actions are required for any brick-and-mortar retailer hoping to thrive and survive in an omnichannel retail market:

  1. Sharpen your purview on available solutions. A few hours with a subject-matter expert further exploring the most recent innovations in digital signage and its use with mobile might make all the difference in clearly seeing the value and path forward.
  2. Think big. Examine how digital signage can fit within a portfolio of technological solutions. For example, mobile and digital signage can be combined to create an interactive two-screen in-store e-commerce experience without the cost or headache of a touchscreen.
  3. Obsess over your customer. Understanding your customers’ motivations across your network is the lynchpin in executing digital signage or mobile effectively. Do they value access to information? Do they care mostly about loyalty? Convenience? Good deals?
  4. Consider digital signage as a booster for fixed displays. Fixed display digital signage, such as that on an endcap, can draw consumers in and engage them with information and promotions.
  5. Think of digital signage as you would any digital content. Active digital signage content can be tagged with targeting metadata, just as mobile and web content are.
  6. Define your measure of success and assign KPIs. Measure success for each digital signage campaign just as you would for a mobile campaign. Apply the results to adjust and pivot throughout the life of the campaign to maximize the results.
  7. Use data to inform active signage. Take advantage of data, analytics, and segmentation tools to truly customize your content. Traditional data-driven mobile and programmatic ad-serving ecosystems like DoubleClick can help you get the right message to the right person at the right time on signage just as these solutions already do on the web.
  8. Test and pilot. Digital signage solutions can be quickly sourced, designed, and piloted to evaluate the effectiveness or ease concerns about deploying signage at scale. With the right solution, digital signage can be done without the commitment to long-term contracts, and standing up a pilot can be done in a matter of weeks.

The Headlines Are Misleading

Today’s brick-and-mortar retail environment is wrought with opportunity. While the landscape is busting with fad tech, digital signage is a pragmatic way to digitize the physical space and better serve the omnichannel consumer. It’s indisputable that e-commerce is chipping away at brick-and-mortar sales, but physical retailers can quickly tool up with retail technology, starting with digital signage, to challenge back.


1. U.S. Census Bureau, Quarterly Retail E-Commerce Sales, May 16, 2017.

2. Top 100 Retailers, STORES magazine, June 26, 2017

3. A Study of 46,000 Shoppers Shows That Omnichannel Retailing Works, Harvard Business Review, Jan. 3, 2017


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