The Curious Case of Retail Signage

We were promised a disruption. It hasn’t happened.

Two stories about technology come to mind as I think about retail graphics, one of the themes in this month’s issue. They won’t seem related to retail or even each other at first, so please bear with me.

The first concerns my wife, who until recently was one of the last holdouts using a flip phone. She had been perfectly content not having the Internet as her constant companion – until she got an older smartphone late last year. Within a few months, she grew disgusted with how slowly web pages loaded and asked when she was eligible for an upgrade.

At about the same time, Google Glass was quietly discontinued three years after its much publicized launch. Not once in that time did I see anyone using the Internet-enabled eyewear.

The link between these disparate tales is the feast-or-famine nature of technology. When a new gadget resonates, it becomes ubiquitous with astonishing swiftness. When it doesn’t, it becomes a collector’s item on eBay. And the appeal of the product has surprisingly little to do with the outcome. The people who wore Google Glasses probably didn’t look any sillier than I did 25 years ago with a portable phone the size of a brick pressed against my head. Yet, however rudimentary, those early cell phones answered a need. We bought them and then tripped over one another in stores every few years when the next incrementally better model came along.

Which brings me to retail. Since the turn of the century, technology developers have been trying to displace printed signage and graphics in stores with video screens, a pursuit with obvious implications for the readers of this magazine. Initially, just getting a digital signage system to function was a major undertaking. Over time, display systems improved. Data-transfer technology underwent several quantum leaps. Corporate behemoths such as Intel and Google dove in, adding credence as well as cash to the effort.

Meanwhile, retailers adopted new strategies for incorporating digital signage. Initiatives that once began with design executives looking to add visual pizzazz migrated to advertising managers with dreams of developing in-store video networks, then finally to IT-savvy marketing managers with an eye on driving immediate and measurable consumer actions.

Today, well-designed digital signage systems work extremely well. Retailers can tie them into the same data infrastructure that enables their e-commerce activities to deliver targeted in-store messages in support of on-the-fly objectives.

And yet, while retail digital signage is here, it is not omnipresent. I’ve seen great examples; I’ve also seen many pilot programs fizzle before intended rollouts due to cost or ROI concerns. I just returned from the Globalshop retail-design exhibition in Las Vegas, where the most prevalent signage technology wasn’t LCD video screens – it was LED light boxes showing brilliantly printed backlit fabrics.

After 15 years, it seems clear that digital signage in retail will be neither disruptive nor abortive. Instead, it will inhabit a rare technological middle ground – cool, pricey, occasionally used, and supported by a distinct distribution channel that never intersects with our own.

And, I suspect, retailers will concentrate their energy on much smaller video screens, like the one on my wife’s iPhone.

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