The anatomy of a digital merchandising system
You might think of dynamic visual merchandising (DynamicVM) as just screens on a wall: something as easy as the new 4K smart TV you would pick up at Best Buy. Well, it should be. But it isn’t. At least, not yet.
As market demand for in-store, consumer-facing digital networks grows, simplification is happening, but not quickly enough to keep up with consumers’ changing behavior. In the meantime, it is worth understanding how a message gets to a screen and sends data back. There are three components to a basic digital signage system: hardware, software and a network.
Before we get into the details, let’s look at a simple schematic (above) that describes the path of a message from a headquarters to a store.
Very simply, web-based software allows you to upload content (playables: video clips, animations, RSS feeds, dynamic elements), target your screen and schedule when you want your content to play. That information travels over a network (connected via the retailer’s own network and/or the Internet) to a player in the store that then plays the content on a screen.
In real life, there are many details along the way that need to be worked out, such as security of your information along the path, both to and from the stores.
Screens, Tablets and Sensors
Let’s start with what the customer sees at the endpoint of a network: typically, the screen. Screens range from shelf-edge “badges” and single screens mounted in fixtures to multi-screen arrays and large outdoor screens like we see in New York’s Times Square.
The endpoints of a network can also be staff tablets and mobile devices, and if the in-store network allows it, customers’ own devices.
Sensors are usually unseen and can passively measure activity, usually foot traffic and dwell time, or can be used for gesture controls, sometimes seen in “magic mirror” applications. Beacons are a kind of sensor and are used in a variety of ways to activate something (such as a promotional offer), usually on a mobile device, in close proximity.
Players are devices that the content sits on and from which the content gets transferred to the screens and/or endpoints. A player is essentially a computer. They range from a single-purpose device to a desktop PC that can manage multiple screen locations within a store. Players can be embedded in a screen, attached to the screen or installed elsewhere in the store.
Pro Tip: Upfront and operational costs vary widely on hardware. Be sure to ask about product lifecycles, warranties and alternatives during your planning process.
Content, Scheduling and Targeting
Content management systems (CMS) are the bundles of software that take your content and play it on your screens and devices. With a centrally controlled network, portions of the CMS sit on a server outside of the store (usually on a cloud service) and portions sit on the player device. Note: There is a difference between player hardware and player software; most player software works on a variety of player hardware devices.
Content scheduling and targeting is usually part of the larger CMS package, but can be separated out. Targeting is the identification of a particular screen or function, i.e., telling the system a dress promotion should be going to the screen on the dress fixture. Scheduling is when the content should be played. It can be told to play it over a period of calendar dates or just on Saturday afternoons during prom season.
With the right CMS, it would be possible to localize content down to a particular screen at a particular time, on a specific day, say, for an in-store promotional event.
It is vital to know what is happening on your network. Monitoring software can tell you the health of the hardware (on/off, temperature, color and channel settings) and what is playing at any given time. Monitoring software should be attached to some sort of human intervention, usually in a network operations center (NOC), where a technician can read the alerts and act on them. The most sophisticated systems are self-healing, so when a problem is detected, the system sends a signal to reboot, which oftentimes fixes a problem; if this doesn’t work, then a human is alerted.
The operations or executive dashboard gives you all your critical information in one place, so you are assured everything is working properly, and if it’s not, you can see how an issue is being resolved and when. Again, products vary widely in this regard.
Pro Tip: Always think of your system as two-way. Even if you don’t plan interactive elements, you’ll need to monitor what’s happening out there and be able to fix it via the network. Relying on local staff is too labor- and resource-intensive.
Network and Connectivity
How your content is transmitted to the store endpoints and back is important. In a beta experiment, you might send content out to a live installation via thumb drive or DVD, but for an actual operational deployment, you need to use the store’s existing local area network (LAN) or set up a purpose-built system. The most common approach is to use the existing network and the Internet, but if you are doing a time-based seasonal display, or one that has infrequent updates and lower monitoring needs, you could use a wireless connection that is only active when needed.
For the most part, content is stored on the local servers and/or players and will only update what is new, so bandwidth needs may not be as significant as you think. Updates, for example, could be scheduled during low-activity times, say every morning at 3:30 a.m. for 10 minutes.
Security is a major concern, especially if your dynamic visual merchandising system is on the same network the store uses for transactions, inventory and other sensitive data. If you are gathering data from in-store consumer interaction, for example, you want a higher level of security than a one-way, manual approach. It is possible to “tunnel” along the network path preventing unwanted access.
Pro Tip: Second only to defining your customers’ experience is assuring a reliable and secure path for your data. Be sure to work with your IT professionals up front to assure the infrastructure properly supports your visual merchandising goals without risking unwanted data access.
In traditional visual merchandising, we have our toolboxes, our colors and materials to bring life to our displays. DynamicVM is no different. Think of the hardware and network infrastructure as your toolbox and the content and digital functions as your color palette. Blending them is where the creativity comes in.
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.