Has digital signage had its day in retail, or do a run of new deals mark a renaissance for this contentious technology, asks Liz Morrell

Digital signage has endured a chequered history in retail, having never really delivered on its early promises.

Much of the problem came from the perceived failure of schemes such as Tesco’s in-store network, Tesco TV. Later rebranded Tesco Screens, the grocer’s attempt was launched in 2004 with screens in 100 stores to display editorial and ad content.

Sainsbury’s and Asda quickly launched copycat initiatives but abandoned them soon after.

For Tesco, the decision to pull the plug only came this March, when the grocer claimed that it was dropping the service in favour of something more “modern”, at the time reportedly blaming “outdated and energy inefficient equipment”.

Yet two recent deals – coupled with a general increasing in confidence in the market – show that retailers are still interested in digital signage.

Asda recently launched a digital signage system from manufacturer Amscreen – part of Sir Alan Sugar’s Amstrad empire – at its store in Keighley in west Yorkshire, which opened in March. The store was used as a test run for a trial that is now running over the next few weeks in Barnsley. Screens have been installed at the pharmacy and photography/technology counters to carry product and pricing information. An additional screen is also being used in the grocer’s staffrooms as it seeks a better way to communicate with its staff.

However, Asda is hesitant to comment on the trial, saying it is too early for feedback.

In August, it was revealed that Amscreen had also signed a deal with HMV to install screens at 25 of its stores that have box office kiosks. The screens will be rolled out to new store kiosks on an ongoing basis.

“It’s flexible and versatile and helps communicate your key messages with greater impact while bringing content to life,” says HMV Tickets manager Jason Thomas.

An added advantage for HMV over static media, such as posters, is that because of the fast-selling nature of events, the screens allow information to be kept up to date more regularly.

Thomas says the screens have already shown themselves to be successful. “Sales of tickets via the kiosks that feature it have increased – so it’s already proving its worth,” he says.

HMV is now considering a wider roll out. “There are no immediate plans but the impact of the screens means they are worthy of consideration for other areas of the business as extended point of sale – not just for our stores but for our live venues too,” says Thomas.

So what has changed? Many believe that Tesco was simply ahead of its time; and retailers and media agencies just didn’t understand how the two should work together.

“Retail is enormously complicated and no one really took that into account. As a generic media opportunity it just wasn’t understood,” says Jamie Ball, managing director of ASG Media (previously Avanti Screen Media).

Marc Mendoza, chief executive of MPG, one the UK’s largest media planning and buying agencies, agrees: “The failure of Tesco TV was disappointing but not surprising. When we discussed it with clients the same themes emerged – proof that it would sell more, attention of shoppers and the requirement for specific creative treatment for a very small media opportunity. The first two are linked and when we walked around a store to see how shoppers interacted with the medium it was clear that they simply didn’t,” says Mendoza.

Ball says there was also a lack of understanding of the results. “There was a feeling that if it shifts product then brilliant but if it doesn’t immediately it hadn’t worked. Yet the media metrics are different to that. The value should be viewed in its effect on building brands over time. In-store retail media has a strategic role to play in the mix, not just a tactical one,” he says.

Media sales house Digicom executive chairman of digital Tom Goddard agrees. “Retailers often overestimated the advertising standalone benefit and underestimated the other benefits,” he says.

There is a better understanding about content now. “Some great lessons have been learnt about the look and the way you advertise. Just regurgitating 30-second TV ads doesn’t work,”
says Goddard.

There was also confusion about what was the right creative to use. ASG Media head of retail Robert Padmore says that giving the customer a reason to watch is key. “To drive engagement in the media there is no point just having a succession of ads. What is important is variety of content and relevance to the shopper mission,” he says.

Understanding seemingly obvious things, such as locating screens in areas of the store where there is a dwell time, is also moving the market forward, particularly in the convenience market, where screens are more visible.

ASG operates a screen network across 180 stores for Spar, reaching 1.4 million customers a week with five screens at eye level in each store.

Amscreen has a forecourt deal with BP where it manages a network for them and is hoping to sign a second petrol retailer shortly. “The convenience type of market is win-win,” says Amscreen chief executive Simon Sugar. “It’s huge footfall and very accountable,” he says.

Co-operative Group owns Europe’s largest network of digital screens and has till screens in 2,194 of its stores, with an average of 3.4 screens a store. Animated content is split between third party advertising and Co-op advertising.

The group is also two-thirds of the way through installation of till screens across its pharmacy branch network, with 777 screens across 586 pharmacies. Unlike the food stores, these screens show static ads that are run across the entire pharmacy network, rather than locally tailored, as they can be in the food stores. In addition, the retailer is also rolling out larger screens to its post offices, with one showing localised third-party advertising and the other Co-op and national third-party adverts – which are again static.

Co-op head of commercial marketing Susan Beetlestone says they are a vital part of the group’s communication package. “It creates an interesting dynamic for the customer. For our
businesses with short dwell times, such as food, it can drive an impulse purchase or let customers know about new product development. In our businesses with long dwell times, it’s a great way of giving customers information while they are waiting,” she says.

Beetlestone says the group has learnt along the way. “We have learnt what type of ads work and as suppliers have seen sales uplifts as a result we are now selling more space than ever,” she says.

Like many, Beetlestone believes that Tesco made fundamental mistakes. “Tesco trialled digital in a completely different retail environment. Customers are far less engaged in a superstore environment. In addition, the positioning of the digital signage was all wrong. It wasn’t at eye level, and therefore didn’t have any significant impact,” she says.

It seems the market is maturing – though it needed to be tweaked somewhat for retail.

Scale has also come. “Up until fairly recently the amount of digital signage out there wasn’t enough. Tesco TV was at time when there wasn’t a lot of other retail digital media out there so the market was very narrow,” says Goddard. “The scale now is much more exciting,” he says.

Cost of ownership has also fallen. Proof of play has been a sticking point in the past but this is also changing.

Amscreen has incorporated technology from its M2M division into the back of its screens, which allows it to monitor use. “Now we can show an agency exactly how many times their ad has been shown. It makes it more tangible,” says Sugar.

Despite the past, it seems digital screens do have a use. “The number of businesses that are talking to us tells us there is a huge momentum and there is much more confidence in the sustainability of these networks,” says Goddard. “Success is built on failure, and the industry has learnt from the failures of the past,” he says.

Lessons learnt

  •            Screens at eye level rather than ceiling hung, where possible
  •            Ads adapted to dwell time of that location – ideally 10 seconds max
  •            Screens situated in areas where customers will dwell by necessity of queuing – eg, at tillpoints or counters, rather than on aisles
  •            Keep the message simple – whether it is advertising or content
  •            Ensure content is relevant to the customers mission at the relevant point in the store