Retail displays transform transactions and markets

Retail displays transform transactions and markets

Summary: I was invited to a Microsoft forum on advanced retail display technology last week and came away with a strange sense that, although the future is going to look a lot like BladeRunner's stifling advertising environment, it could also be useful and powerful for the customer, not just the advertiser. We have to think about how to display information in a way that is important to purchase decision-making, not just try to tell people why they should buy, buy, buy!

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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I was invited to a Microsoft forum on advanced retail display technology last week and came away with a strange sense that, although the future is going to look a lot like BladeRunner's stifling advertising environment, it could also be useful and powerful for the customer, not just the advertiser. We have to think about how to display information in a way that is important to purchase decision-making, not just try to tell people why they should buy, buy, buy!

LevelVision's floor displayThe standout technology at the event, to my eye, was LevelVision's "horizontal signage," which include floor, table/countertop and ceiling displays. Among interesting displays that could be manipulated by waving one's hand or projected onto a retailer's window, LevelVision attracted my attention with the potential to add interactivity to many more settings, from the restaurant to the retail countertop to the gym and sidewalk. The company's patents cover a wide range of hypothetical applications, since the screens can capture information as well as simply display video.

LevelVision's countertop displayWhat if, for example, you were able to weigh someone as they were looking at a pair of pants? Or take their temperature by having them place their hand on a tabletop display in the doctor's waiting room? In either case, you'd be prepared to ask the next round of questions you need to better serve them before an human intervenes. You could take five or 10 minutes out of a trip to the doctor with these screens, if they were placed in the waiting room or, even, in the consultation room for use by patients as they wait for the doc. Fitting clothes with interactive systems that display and capture data would transform the way off-the-shelf clothing was sold—no more sifting through hangars to find a good fit.

LevelVision has tested its floor-level displays in malls and college bookstores, seeing substantial increases in traffic and purchasing where the displays were able to capture a passer-by's attention or engage shoppers in the store with a particular offer.

Jim Currie, the CEO of LevelVision, told me that he envisions a new kind of medium in these horizontal displays. It starts with showing advertising and offers on the LCD panels at floor- and counter-level, but can grow to encompass all sorts of engagement as the initial novelty of the technology passes (the initial novelty, based on customer responses in tests, is enough to kickstart this medium). At some point, simply showing pictures and ads on the floor don't keep the attention and shoppers will expect to find offers that actually apply to them or the products nearby when they look at the floor.

And look at the floor we do. If you shop, you tend to look at the floor while waiting for service or thinking about a purchase. This is why we describe ourselves as "grounded," after all—we're always looking down to get out bearings, to make sure we are going to trip and fall, or to avoid other people who are also stuck in the awkward situation of waiting.

In another example of the growing opportunity to fill the environment with information, 3M Digital Signage showed a very cool glass tape that can be affixed to a window to provide a brilliant display that can be seen in direct light. (Home theater folks should check this out for use in the backyard, where you could show movies day or night.)

Imagine, however, walking into a mall and seeing information on the windows of the stores. If you were looking for something, like a Nintendo Wii, and the availability of the Wii was shown on the windows of the stores you pass, you'd be in a position to shop for price and add-ons before entering any of the stores.

Here's where the question of a what a "medium" is becomes interesting. We tend to think of media as telling stories, like a television show such as ABC's Lost does, or as a commercial that manages to convince or entertain. But when we get close to the customer and close to the point of purchase, like these displays do, there is a much greater opportunity in simply providing the information that can become part of a customer's own story. Because we are story-making animals, almost any data can be put to use by the individual. Being able to recommend something that complements a purchase makes the purchase more attractive. Getting a deal that was offered to you in line, that others didn't take advantage of, makes a good story (e.g., "You should see the free Virginia Tech mug I got at the bookstore." or "I got this for 10 percent off, but only because I asked for it.")

The real changes come in how we can use these types of displays to make the economics of a transaction more transparent. What if the countertop at the 7-11 could total the calories and breakdown the nutrients in your purchase for you? Would Americans be quite as fat as they are if McDonald's used its countertops to help them eat better?

Sure, we think no marketer wants to reveal that their products aren't quite as good for people as they'd like, but in an environment where the customer is increasingly in control because of growing access to information, the revolution in marketing will come, like it or not. Companies will find it pays to make all the data available to customers and, if people don't want to buy fattening foods or environment-damaging products, those companies will actually change their products in response.

Being able to get that feedback in a structured way, through applications that interact with customers at the point-of-sale, is the most promising chance for marketers to engage with customers when the transaction counts. Interactive displays are able to bring new data to the buying decision, make connections that might be missed or annoying if the counter clerk slowed the transaction, or just to ask one survey question about why someone bought what they did that day.

So, back to BladeRunner. In the world Harrison Ford was chasing replicants, all the signage was of the television commercial variety that bathed people in soothing or alluring images. The more likely—at least, the more positive application of ambient and, as LevelVision calls it, "proxemic" marketing—is that customers will be able to demand more of the seller before, during and after the transaction based on their increasing access to information. When you have more to offer, you can also charge more, discount more actively and upsell conveniently.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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  • Soon I shouldn't look down...

    ... in order to avoid seeing ads. I wonder how many accidents will be caused by people looking away to avoid advertising and so overlooking important information, like an oncoming automobile. Even if laws are necessary, avoidance shouldn't be dangerous.

    Also, you do realize that the reason McDonald's sells so much food is because people want to buy it, right?! The people who want to stop McDonald's from selling certain products or sizes are actually trying to stop the customers. If the counter were able to provide facts about food, only those unlikely to buy would be attentive. Unless laws were passed to mandate it.

    So this new technology will be used to afflict people with ads they do not wish to see and warnings against things they want to do. Isn't this a discussion of an increasingly hostile environment?

    Maybe people would be happier without obtrusive advertisers and scolds. You think?
    Anton Philidor
    • I'll go with more information every time

      You set up the horns of a dilemma, suggesting that, on the one hand, McDonald's
      customers are being counter-marketed to and, on the other, it will be impossible
      to avoid messages, even to our peril. Neither of these extremes acknowledges that
      there is tremendous value in having access to additional information in many
      instances.

      Likewise, it is already the case that limiting advertising is legislated in many
      jurisdictions, either by zoning laws or explicit prohibitions on advertising messages
      along highways and at intersections. So, that negative extreme is not really a valid
      scenario.

      Yet, you describe "afflicting" ads on people, which marketers have been inclined to
      do in many circumstances. I wasn't suggesting that would be a good idea. Instead,
      I was describing using displays to enhance transactions with more information.
      There is a scenario where McDonald's might see the value in exposing more
      nutritional data to their customers, one they play at by offering printed calorie
      counters for their food: They might actually see the value in offering the data and
      adjusting their food preparation to reduce calories or improve nutritional value.

      More data needn't be an assault on our senses, it can also be empowering. If we
      use new display technology as a foundation for getting the data customers need,
      we create more value for the customer. Just drowning them in additional images is
      missing the opportunity in this technology.

      I'll go with more data as a customer in any situation, which is what I was urging we
      think about doing with this technology, even if it bears a similarity to a dystopian
      view of the future.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Afflicting consumers.

        The problem is providing more information than consumers want.

        In some cases that can be assertive, as in the case of ads in the floor. As you and I each wrote, laws are the only certain way to avoid obtrusive floors. Your comment:

        "Likewise, it is already the case that limiting advertising is legislated in many jurisdictions, either by zoning laws or explicit prohibitions on advertising messages along highways and at intersections. So, that negative extreme is not really a valid scenario."

        To me, the requirement to pass a law demonstrates a failure of civility. Expecting advertisers to be concerned about civility may seem antique, but resentment is damaging.

        The other impetus for providing too much information comes from scolds. When McDonalds increases serving sizes, the public buys them enthusiastically while those who believe they should control buyers' decisions wring their hands. McDonalds has to maintain a difficult balance between what the puiblic wants and what those who wouldn't eat at one of their restaurants demand.

        You wrote:

        I was describing using displays to enhance transactions with more information.
        There is a scenario where McDonald's might see the value in exposing more nutritional data to their customers, one they play at by offering printed calorie counters for their food: They might actually see the value in offering the data and
        adjusting their food preparation to reduce calories or improve nutritional value.

        Following that advice led to decreased sales, but the company eventually decided to follow the desires of their customers.

        So what happens when McDonalds becomes insistent in providing information the public knows and has no interest in hearing again? The puvlic resents the intrusion. McDonalds endorses the scolds.

        Why should McDonalds attack their customers? Again, law. The chance that legislation might mandate an even more thoroughgoing assault might compel McDonalds to use an approach the company can better control. Friendlier, easier to ignore.

        Again, law is a failure of civility, this time on the part of those who wish to control aspects of others' lives.


        I'll assert that any public situation which must be controlled by law is a failure of society. And the obtrrusiveness you seem to endorse to me implies that legislation will be required, whether to prevent or enforce the provision of too much information.
        Anton Philidor
        • Information is an attack?

          Anton, providing additional information to customers isn't necessarily an attack. It
          can be a service, one of special value when people are constantly confronted with
          increasingly complex products and services, as well as deeply interconnected
          economic and environmental consequences of a purchase.

          You've seized on a libertarian critique of the potential downsides of legislation
          rather than address the issue I am raising, which is that transactions can include a
          lot more information than they do today to very productive ends. I'm not suggesting
          we "endorse the scolds," only that we engage with customers as intelligent people.
          They may opt out of getting any additional information, and that is okay, but the
          technology's potential positive impact remains in the ability to display more
          information in a particular context.

          I completely disagree with your position that "law is a failure of society," because it
          grants the assumption that companies know better than their customers. Markets
          are a dialog. You raised the concern that advertising could cause accidents in your
          previous posting, and legislation is one way the public can organize enough power
          to counteract bad economic actors. Law exists as a component of society, not an
          external force on society; it is of and by the members of society.
          Mitch Ratcliffe
          • It's a weapon.

            Am I - are you - permitted to determine when to accept a service?

            Am I - are you - permitted to determine what services all people should receive and insist under penalty that I be provided them?

            You wrote:
            "[providing additional information to customers] can be a service, one of special value when people are constantly confronted with increasingly complex products and services, as well as deeply interconnected economic and environmental consequences of a purchase."

            Okay, take the problem of excessive choice. Too many choices makes decision-making difficult and later regretted.

            You are advocating adding more complex information to an already bewildering number of choices. And inserting priorities that the buyer may choose not to deal with.

            Buttonhole a TV buyer and say, "These sets will be recycled much more efficiently than those at the end of their useful life. But these sets over here are made in Country X and the corruption in that country is so severe that buying that TV would be supporting a tyrant. And these sets over here are made by a company facing bankruptcy, so you'll have to decide whether to support jobs or avoid the risk of not being able to find parts a few years from now."

            All of that is information. The more courteous customers will beg you to go away, while the more forceful will join with the sales staff in encouraging your departure from the premises more quickly than you would have preferred. A threat of violence is information of a sort, and probably better grounds for action than most.

            Has the preference for avoiding information not requested become a sign of libertarian ideology? Does "Leave me alone" predict my vote?

            That's "opt in" instead of "opt out". You wrote: "They [customers] may opt out of getting any additional information, and that is okay..."
            Telling the customer about the available information sufficiently to obtain an informed decision is itself an obtrusion.

            When the floor asks, "May I provide important information?" there's an old but incisive response: "When I want your opinion I'll beat it out of you." Floors wouldn't be comprehending, but that answer would increase customer satisfaction.



            On the nature of law, in this context it's a restraint on behavior under penalty. To protect the public from bad actors such as obtrusive advertisers and those providing unwanted information in order to encourage a view of the good.

            The law is not, of course, invariably a reflection of the general will.
            It's a truism that if 98% of people believe something but the remaining 2% hold the contrary view and campaign long and expensively, then the 2% are likely to produce the law.
            That's the basis for interest-group politics. Add companies and other organizations to the list of interested players.

            When the law has responded to 2% of people with strong views of the good or strong economic motives, then law can be said to be an external force on society and not by (98% of) the members of society.

            Society should be based to a degree on dialogue, including the relation between marks and marketers.
            (I'm not certain markets are well defined as dialogue.)

            A dialogue does not consist entirely of threats to go to Court and let the law decide. It should assume sincerity and responsiveness, and an effort to reach if not some mutually satisfactory conclusion, at least a polite agreement to differ on understood points. And that all parties to the dialogue believe such a discussion necessary.

            Law may be considered a foreclosure of dialogue. One view is being enforced. It's disappointing when that's necessary, but sometimes it is necessary. As when advertising underfoot is too insistent and will not curb itself. Though not when someone decides to talk people out of eating at McDonalds at point of sale.
            Anton Philidor