After a period of scepticism, retailers are beginning to try out different uses of digital signage. Rebecca Thomson finds out if it’s worth it.

Digital signage is by no means new – it’s been around for years, used with varying degrees of success across the retail industry.

It’s been slow to take off in a widespread way, however. High up-front investment costs and uncertain returns on investment have seen to that, and retailers have shied away from large-scale roll-outs.

But as costs fall and retailers look for ways to make stores more attractive, interesting uses of the technology are filtering through. DFS’s new high street store on Tottenham Court Road is one of the most recent, and is part of a new wave of retailers test-driving digital’s potential.

Jim Thompson, managing director at design consultancy 20/20, worked with DFS on the store. It has four large promotional screens in the windows, a nine-screen array as part of a central store display, three main ‘pause points’ where customers can find out more about products and a further seven screens around the room, which staff can link their iPads to for product demonstrations.

On the big screen

Thompson says the furniture retailer wants to see what effect the screens have on sales, because the high street format is new for the chain. He says the in-store screens are helpful for providing information and giving access to the whole product range, helping staff to explain what’s available.

The other major benefit, he adds, is the sense of theatre the screens help to create – DFS’s nine-screen arrangement is organised around a particular product with creative content based on a specific theme. Meanwhile, the four projection screens in the windows, carry the promotional materials for which DFS is well known. Thompson says this is the part of the operation that could help the retailer save money. Promotions can be changed more frequently and more quickly when compared with paper posters and different messages can be transmitted at different times of the day. “DFS will continue to be a strong promoter of product – their deals are very important to sales,” says Thompson. “The amount of paper they have to produce to get those messages into stores is a lot to manage.”

Substance over style

There are certainly arguments in favour of trying digital signage – the costs have come down for a start, with a high-definition TV screen costing 20% less than a year ago, according to Thompson. Moving images can attract attention more easily than static images, and the whole operation can be updated quickly and easily.

But it’s easy to fall into the trap of using technology for its own sake, says Nick Gale, founder of creative content agency Realisation. “There’s a difference between things that look quite clever and things that are actually effective and useful,” he says. “Typically, shiny new things will attract a lot of attention but commercially it doesn’t stack up.”

This is why retailers in some sectors are yet to be convinced – the grocers in particular seem sceptical of the ability of digital signage to drive higher sales and pay for itself. It doesn’t suit fashion retail particularly well either, he adds. Instead, it suits retailers who sell a wide range of brands. “At Carphone Warehouse, for instance, 20 brands want to have a share of the voice. Within that retail structure there is a continuous supply of new products.” Which is perhaps why digital signage has worked well at Harrods – there are dozens of brands at the department store that are vying for attention and space.

Thompson agrees it doesn’t suit everyone, and says specialist retailers are among those most likely to get use out of it. “It helps with product information which is really important for them,” he says.

But wherever the technology is used, what’s crucial is that the content is right for the medium. It might be easy to install a few screens, but using them effectively as part of a wider campaign is another thing altogether.

Russell Clayton, strategy director at marketing agency Rosie Lee, says the most important thing is to engage people and get them to interact. The agency has worked with Nike, with digital screens used as part of its store installations and designs, including at its Selfridges concession, and Clayton says creativity is the key attribute.

“Going for a screen in store for the sake of it is not the right way to go about it,” he says. “A lot of the time they get used just to have some technology in store, and that’s less interesting.”

But technology is not enough on its own. “It has to be presented creatively otherwise no one’s interested and it’s kind of pointless. But there’s also no use just being creative – you’ve got to get people to buy products.”

Digital signage seems set to play a bigger role in store design as retailers battle to create more exciting environments, but a measured approach is needed. Clever content and judicious use of the technology is necessary – anything bland, or any signage that isn’t playing a clear role in the store’s ecosystem should be avoided.