In the world of point of purchase, cardboard signage has always been the preferred method of communication, but is digital media changing this and expanding the possibilities?

On the face of it, point of purchase marketing should be remarkably simple. It’s a method of ensuring that shoppers opt for a particular product or are aware of a promotion at a specific moment. It works by highlighting perceived advantage and is a none-too-subtle way of seducing consumers into handing over their cash.

And it remains a very powerful tool. Statistics abound showing that 70% and upwards of decisions about whether to buy something are made at the point of purchase. Yet things are changing in this area of retailing, albeit gradually. Martin Kingdon, director-general of Point Of Purchase Association International (POPAI) the industry body for point of purchase, says that if you had visited a Safeway store in the UK about 10 years ago you would have seen “a rainforest canopy of signage that nobody was looking at”.

What Kingdon refers to is the tendency of retailers in larger stores to put up overhead signage that is supposed to act as a shopper call to action. Yet, as he comments: “All the research shows people just don’t look up. They’ll look up and down a unit, and down at the floor, but what they don’t do is look up at the sky.”

Over their heads

Pay a visit to most supermarkets, however, and one thing that is obvious, even if shoppers are not looking at it, is that there remains a lot of overhead

signage. Sainsbury’s in Camden Town, for instance, is a large store laid out along familiar lines in which almost every conceivable form of point of purchase has been deployed.

There is certainly some overhead signage but it is not at anything like the Safeway level described by Kingdon. There is a large amount of branded cardboard, used to promote predominantly own-brand merchandise and financial services at shelf level and there is even point of purchase on the PIN keypads at the self-checkouts.

Where there is branded cardboard, as in the case of a gondola-end cut out for a new Imperial Leather product, it has been merged with Sainsbury’s corporate colours, so the point of purchase is on the retailer’s terms. It’s an approach that has been the modus operandi at John Lewis for years.

As such, Sainsbury’s is typical of the manner in which point of purchase is handled by food retailers, all of which have overhead signage to a greater or lesser degree. It also has a long aisle on which various big signs boast ‘1/2 price’, ‘Buy 2 And Save’ and ‘Only £1’, among others. This is action alley or the power aisle, depending on which of the big grocers’ jargon you choose to adopt, and it demonstrates the supermarkets’ fixation with cardboard as the best means of communicating value.

From an environmental perspective, there is, of course, a benefit to using cardboard point-of-purchase material. Kingdon says: “Providing you’ve got the right inks, it is recyclable and therefore fits the green agenda, which is important at the moment.”

What it does not do is last forever and left on the floor for any length of time point of purchase rapidly becomes dog-eared and may have the reverse effect to that which is intended.

This is perhaps where digital printing on demand comes into its own. Until recently, the problem confronting retailers wishing to use cardboard for point-of-purchase campaigns was that it was not really possible to use it tactically. Promotions in small print runs were not practical owing to the cost of limiting print quantities, which meant that local initiatives were not possible and reacting to trends in shopper behaviour was problematic.

Charles Kessler, chairman of point-of-purchase company Kesslers, says that the advent of digital printing has meant that retailers are able to respond more rapidly without the inherent cost implications that used to prevent this happening. “It adds an extra dimension: it’s an additional tool for retailers,” he says. He uses Zoggs, the swimming goggles brand, as an example of the process at work and also as an example of “shelf-ready packaging”.

In many ways, shelf-ready packaging is the coming thing in the point-of-purchase world. It involves product packaging and display units that act as point of purchase in their own right, rather than adding cardboard to promote a particular item. In the Zoggs case, both the product and the mobile peg-wall used to display it have been digitally printed and the finished display units were rolled out onto the stockists’ floors.

This is where conflict, particularly with the big retailers, may be an issue. Retailers like to be in control of their destiny, which means that the Sainsbury’s example of using branded products combined with in-house colours can be an issue. Kessler’s point that digital printing means smaller print runs can be used to good effect here, allowing personalisation of a mass campaign at individual retail level.

All of this means that in spite of having, notionally at least, entered the digital age, the use of cardboard is set to remain a feature of in-store promotions and screens (see right) are still some way from becoming ubiquitous. And, owing to the need for branded stand-out, it is the brands, rather more than the retailers, which are driving the point-of-purchase agenda.

David Mitchell, chairman of Wakefield-based point-of-purchase company Beziers, says that brands have been lobbying hard for more point of purchase action in-store, but that cardboard point of purchase is just one aspect of what is taking place. “People have less to spend and so you really do have to capture their attention if they are going to buy. This may mean that brands will spend more on point of purchase, but shopper marketing will have to be sharper in total,” he says.

Cardboard looks set to remain as part of the marketing armoury for the foreseeable future, as initial outlay is likely to prevent the wholesale adoption of digital point of purchase and signage in the near future, given the tight consumer climate. Traditional point of purchase may be one of retail’s less glamorous arenas, but it is here to stay.

Digital age: The 30-second rule

There was a time, just a few years ago, when it looked as if we were on the verge of information overload in the shape of screens and in-store monitors, which would bombard us with product information as we visited the shops. The experience of Tesco TV, which came and went, has rather put paid to that one, but the digital age has taken on a new meaning with the increasingly accessible price of promotions that can be beamed to mini-screens at shelf-edge level.

Anyone visiting the point of purchase trade show at the Business Design Centre in London last month would have been hard-pushed to miss Point Of Purchase Association International’s (POPAI) digital mock-shop. Everything from digital point of purchase in the shape of screens to mini-screens on the shelf-edge was on view. POPAI director-general Martin Kingdon says what surprised him about the retailers, brands and agencies that visited was not just how relatively unsophisticated the level of understanding of the technologies was, but also the basics, such as ‘Where should I put it?’ and ‘How do I install it?’.

Beziers chairman David Mitchell points out screens and digital point of purchase hold the potential to create a deeper engagement with the consumer, but “you don’t have 40 to 60 seconds to make your point. You’ll have 30 if you’re good”. He adds: “Touchscreens have the potential to maintain interest longer. Advice on skin tones for beauty products can work well for example.”

While digital point of purchase is certainly an avenue along which some retail and brand marketers may stroll, it remains just one of several that can be followed when it comes to promoting products in-store.