Types of In-Store, Consumer-Facing Networks
One hundred and thirty-three years ago, Emile Zola used the new retail format – the department store – as the anchor of his novel "The Ladies' Paradise." In the novel, Zola captures the wonder that new plate-glass technology afforded: views into the store and beautiful, exotic displays. As department stores ushered in the age of consumers and emotional enticements, merchants started to understand the power of great presentations.
Today, a million types of emerging technologies are being thrown at stores. We have screens, beacons, sensors, tablets and phones conspiring to distract and confuse customers, brands and retailers alike.
While I’m fascinated by the bleeding edge of technology, I’m much more interested in the practical application of technology in service of a great customer experience. I think of these systems in terms of “generations” from simple to highly sophisticated. I hope this helps you plan for what might be right for your business.
Alpha, Beta & Pilot
Here, you are testing your ideas, either in a laboratory or a live environment. At its core, your hypothesis should be about the efficacy of content. Is your fall look book delivering the right message on these screens? Are customers getting the right message? (All while assuming the physical placement of the screens is correct.)
Think of an alpha as a sketch. It can be playing with content in rough sequences on your computer or a simple storyboard. Beta can take the form of a screen with some sort of slideshow or video loop playing; think of it as a rapid prototype. The images play via a DVD player, a USB drive or a cloud/streaming device such as Google Chromecast.
A pilot is usually done in a live store environment where placement, visibility, content efficacy and network efficiency can be tested. Usually pilots happen in a small number of locations in order to test the technology with control environments.
Pro Tip: Given the emergent nature of digital signage technology in stores, I suggest piloting and proving concepts before including them in new store prototypes.
First Generation: Networked Screens
First Generation is exemplified by a use that is dependent on network technology. These are basic, one-way networks that push content out to screens that simply present the images. There is a consistent or regular need to update content.
I have found most retailers that have networked their screens have been very selective in putting them in flagship/prime stores or specific departments such as media/DVD/entertainment where the investment makes sense and the flow of content is consistent.
Pro Tip: Existing network infrastructure should be able to handle visual merchandising bandwidth needs. Investigate the operational ease of making updates to your screens over the network. How easy is it to upload and schedule new content?
Second Generation: Localized Content & Monitoring
One of the most exciting functions of dynamic VM is the potential to localize content. This can take the forms of local weather or language but, more importantly, it can react to the business conditions of a particular store location. For example, a store in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood might present messages in Mandarin. If a store is low on the sweaters featured on the in-store signage, the system reduces the frequency of spots for those sweaters.
The latter is a sophisticated content management exercise, but the technology is currently available. (More on content management in a future blog post.)
The digital signage community uses the term "monitoring" to describe the ability to "see" what is or isn’t happening on a network. The level of monitoring can range from a simple heartbeat (is the screen on?) to a robust view of the hardware, software and integrity of the connections along the path of the content to screen and back.
This is the simplest of two-way networks, where the diagnostic information about the network is "sent back" to a network operations center that usually has a human or two paying attention to the information and reacts when there is a problem. The most sophisticated monitoring software is "self-healing," meaning it uses the incoming diagnostic information to attempt remote "fixes" of a problem. I'll go into more depth on this in a future post, as well.
Pro Tip: Don't invest in networked screens without monitoring. Staying ahead of black screens and network outages is critical.
Third Generation: Interactive Data Gathering
We've all used interactive kiosks to check into flights or to find our way through malls. While those serve specific functions, in the context of visual merchandising, I'm focusing on experiences prior to the sale that usually involve preference. The best examples come from Sephora. In particular, the in-store Fragrance Finder that asks a series of questions that result in a set of recommendations for fragrances that are nearby and available for testing.
The data that comes from this is similar to pre-purchase shopping information from web and mobile retail. It is critical to have a networked environment that allows for the uploading of usage data that can be used to understand consumer preferences and influence local assortments.
Pro Tip: Make sure your reporting can show you details of local activity while aggregating trends. The greatest return on this investment is to tailor assortments to local preferences.
Fourth Generation: Mobile First / Responsive
I believe the future will include context-aware, responsive retail environments. Imagine a store that presents itself to customers based on a series of variables, rules and tools that give the shopper what he or she wants. This can be as simple as the dynamic VM network presenting the right message on screens based on an understanding the number of guests from key consumer segments and local inventory levels during a busy Saturday afternoon.
The best early example I've seen of this is the Rebecca Minkoff store in New York. This store, while not automatic, can react to a customer's preferences shared on her web/mobile activity and profile. The potential is for an individual or a group of customers' behavioral data and preferences to be treated as input by the environment and the environment responds with lighting, imagery, alerts to staff, etc.
Rebecca Minkoff has built their brand with their best customers at the center. This means mobile, first and foremost. Stores are just one stream of revenue and data. Image courtesy Rebecca Minkoff.
This requires a highly sophisticated combination of technologies working together. With new developments that fall under the Internet of Things (IoT) umbrella, I can see these functions, applications and experiences all talking to each other in the background on behalf of the consumer's experience with the retailer and brands.
Pro Tip: Don’t limit yourself to what has been done. Think of the technology as a new box of crayons to play with. Start with the customer and craft ideal scenarios you want them to experience. Ask big questions of your internal and external partners and experiment as much as you can along the way.
A Bit of This, A Bit of That
These distinctions are not mutually exclusive. Systems really should be customized to your in-store communication strategy and operational abilities. That is the real takeaway here. There are many rules and tools you can apply to the in-store experience. A basic understanding of the available and proven technology and how it can benefit your customers and staff is a good place to start.
Read the DynamicVM series here : http://www.vmsd.com/taxonomy/term/15157
Chuck Palmer is a retail strategist working at the convergence of consumer behavior, technology and innovation. He works with retailers and brands, agencies and vendors on ideal consumer experiences. He has worked with JPMorgan Chase, Airstream, Macy’s, Crate & Barrel, Nintendo and JohnRyan among others. Chuck is a regular contributor to industry publications and is often called on for expert opinions. Find him on social media @cxchuck and ConsumerXretail.com.