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Digital Dynamic Signage Dares Retailers to Take the Plunge

Understanding how to incorporate new technologies into your designs could help your business stay on the cutting edge and win new clients.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Signage has made some dramatic evolutions since Roman times, when artisans chiseled lettering in wood and stone on their structures. The first illuminated sign appeared in midtown Manhattan in 1892. By1923 neon signs ­ dubbed liquid fire -- were first introduced in the United States and became a popular fixture in advertising.

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  • All in all, the evolution from paintbrushes, rollers and plywood to computer-driven routers, vinyl cutters and welders was brief. But the growth and change of signage continues to represent new opportunities for sign makers as new multi-media technologies begin to take their place in the industry.

    Retail signage is one of the most exciting areas of evolution. Experts are watching retail signage closely, looking at ways to begin integrating digital signage into the hierarchy of sales and promotional information. In fact, a new stage in the evolution -- dynamic or programmable signage -- is just a small push away from massive widespread acceptance.

    What exactly is dynamic signage? Well, the definition itself is dynamic. For example, plasma screens with digital feeds are finding their way into department stores. “Smart paper” and electronic shelf labels, too, are emerging as a new in-store marketing method. And the future will see interactive kiosks take hold in malls and retail shops.

    Understanding how to incorporate new technologies into your designs could help your business stay on the cutting edge and win new clients.

    Digital Dynamic Signage Draws Attention
    Simply put, digital dynamic signage uses technology. Some forms of digital signage makes it possible to transmit and playback the highest resolution of digital images on a PC platform known as a plasma screen.

    Sophisticated digital signage servers are available that allow retailers to connect multiple monitors. From a single source you can offer your client control of its advertising, such as synchronizing the signage to show unique images on each display. These images can be static, have dynamic fades, wipes or animations; full motion digital video “commercials” with CD-quality sound; or a combination of all the above. The servers can also be scheduled to show specific advertisements at a designated time.

    Other forms of dynamic signage use HTML and Internet technology. Regardless of the type of technology, the concept here is easily changeable signage that gives retailers the freedom and flexibility they have lacked with traditional paper signs and graphics.

    FAO Baby Goes Futuristic
    FAO Baby in Manhattan is one of the first retailers to use digital dynamic signage. FAO Baby features 19, 42-inch plasma screens positioned throughout the store showcasing a variety of videos depicting children at play. The screens are placed to call out brand information and product information for promotion.

    “They have a play through loop that is in synch and conveys the overall FAO Schwarz brand image. Each area of the store has a screen which then loops to a product promotion and brand information message,” says David Ashen, pricinpal for Retail Architecture, Inc. in New York. “It’s much more engaging and evocative than static signage. So, as opposed to just having the newest toy from Playskool promoted with a static sign they have a video loop showing someone interacting with the toy and promotional information regarding it.”

    Bloomingdales Bets on Dynamic Signage
    Bloomingdales, too, is experimenting with dynamic signage in its cosmetics area. Brands like Clinique and Estee Lauder are actually paying for space on the screen.

    “In the past, retailers would put up a static sign about a promotion from Estee Lauder. Now it’s something that’s supplied by a vendor,” says Ashen. “What it’s causing is the potential for revenue dollars in a multi-branded store. It’s huge because you have brands that argue for space. So where they can’t get space on the shelf in a prominent area they can buy time or buy rights for their space on the dynamic signage at the front of the store or at the end of an aisle where there are competing brands. It could make the difference between whether a consumer goes in that direction or not.”

    Best Buy Boosts Programmable Signage to New Levels
    With cube technology from Pioneer, the world’s leading video wall manufacturer, and the design wizardry of Electrosonic, a Minneapolis-based systems integrator specializing in video wall processing, engineering, design and installation, Best Buy shoppers are treated to dazzling video wall presentations that dramatize HDTV’s graphic and video capabilities to create life-like, three-dimensional images.

    The system's design has provided Best Buy with an in-store updateable signage solution that allows the company to remotely update the video images in 160 stores simultaneously. The HDTV signal running on the video walls is also converted to an analog signal allowing smaller monitors throughout the store to show the same images as the video walls. Managers at individual stores can also choose to run video loops specific to certain holidays or local events.

    “Retailers like Best Buy have a strong interest in Pioneer’s CRT-based video wall display technology because it can have such a major impact on store traffic and sales,” says Craig McManis, vice president of marketing for Pioneer New Media Technologies' Industrial Display Division. “CRT video walls not only offer the biggest picture and best programming options for in-store presentation uses, but they also provide tremendous flexibility because they can readily accommodate new video display advancements such as HDTV.”

    Electronic Shelf Labels Sell
    Other areas of retail signage that are poised for take off are electronic signage for pricing and promotional data at the point-of-purchase. Consumers expect prices to be consistent on the shelf and the checkout. Electronic shelf labels (ESLs) represent an evolution of paper shelf labels and other retail pricing signage.

    From a technology standpoint, ESLs allow your client to remove shelf and checkout price disparity problems, manage price and merchandising more effectively and improve resets and automation capabilities at the point-of-purchase. From a labor standpoint, retail clients find ESLs attractive for their accuracy and cost reduction. Ashen predicts that ESLs are going to change how the industry thinks about signage. The new focus is automation.

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    “FAO Baby has this tiny screen that they are going to launch sometime in the future,” says Ashen. “It’s the size of a price sticker on a shelf. Each screen has an individual identification number so that the message can be updated instantly from either the store itself or headquarters. So if Target had a special running on red T-shirts and they ran out of red T-shirts in one store they could change it to a special on white T-shirts. It’s a very interesting way of driving promotions, driving business and driving control of stock and resources.”

    Smart Paper Makes a Push
    But programmable signage goes beyond plasma screens and electronic stickers. A company called Electronic Ink is pushing a technology dubbed “smart paper.” Initially developed by an MIT lab, “e-ink” is a new material that sign industry experts say will have a far-reaching impact on how information is displayed.

    E-ink’s retail signage product, Ink-In-Motion, forms an electronic display by printing ink onto a sheet of plastic film that is laminated to a layer of circuitry. The circuitry forms a pattern of pixels that can then be controlled by a display driver. These microcapsules are suspended in a liquid "carrier medium" allowing them to be printed using existing screen printing processes onto virtually any surface, including glass, plastic, fabric and even paper. Ultimately, electronic ink will permit most any surface to become a display.

    Sign makers can leverage this product to help its retail clients attract more shoppers’ attention to displays, make point-of-purchase promotions more effective, enhance brand equity at the point-of-purchase and integrate easily into temporary and semi-permanent displays. The technology is wireless, runs on two AA batteries and is extremely cost-effective (less than $100 each).

    “Retailers can change the signs at any time of day so you could have one price in the morning and another in the afternoon,” says Karen Schaffner, co-director of GlobalShop, the world's largest in-store marketing and design show. “If you have a price sign over the umbrellas and it starts raining you can raise the prices. Or if a grocer has price signage in the produce section they can lower the price at the end of the day so that they can get rid of the merchandise before it goes bad. The opportunities are really amazing.”

    Of course, there are some drawbacks to smart paper signage, she notes. It is currently limited in terms of paper and ink color, for example. But with HTML capabilities the opportunities are real.

    What’s Next in Retail Signage?
    Retail signage will continue to evolve as technology becomes both more sophisticated and more affordable. The next big wave will be Internet kiosks. While kiosks are not traditionally considered signage, Schaffner points out that anything that delivers a message in a retail setting is indeed a form of sign.

    “Kiosks are almost like personalized signage,” she says. “If a sign’s mission is to deliver a message to a customer in a store, doesn’t this do that?”

    California’s Galleria mall, as well as 25 other malls across the nation, are now equipped with CENTERLINQ kiosks that use 40-inch plasma display panels. While these kiosks are purely for informational purposes today, evolution will take them into individual stores for personalized interactive shopping experiences.

    What this Means for Traditional Sign Makers
    Savvy sign makers have an opportunity to expand their businesses to accommodate new technologies as they come down the pike. But while these technologies are going to find acceptance by retailers big and small, experts say there will always be room for traditional sign makers.

    “I don’t know what role a signage company will have where plasma screens are used extensively, but I think that print signage and print graphics will always have a place,” says Schaffner. “There are different types of messages and different types of graphic messages that you send. A print graphic or a print sign sends different messages from a video graphic or a smart paper sign. There’s a place for all of it.”

    Schaffner says that while retail signage is evolving quickly even the smallest of sign makers should not adopt the “Chicken Little” philosophy. They sky is not falling. The little guy will not fall off the radar screen.

    “The fact is that there is a new media and perhaps it improves the existing media by its competitive nature,” she says. “But it’s just another way to deliver a message. It’s not going to be the only way messages are delivered.”

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