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Signs of the Times

More brands turn to digital displays to reach customers


Sign of the Times

Old-school signs like these have their place, but customers prefer digital in stores.


Dairy Queen store owners used to swap out posters promoting their sweet treats at least once a month: Take out the old promotion, put in the new. Repeat. Repeat. That tedious task changed in June, since the rollout of a digital feature panel integrated into the static menu board in stores. 

The panel automatically rotates each month’s promotions like Blizzard of the month, plus features add-on sale items, upsells products and touts higher-margin goodies. “For an operator it’s much easier. They really, really love it,” said Janna Rider, director of digital merchandising for American Dairy Queen Corp. in Minneapolis. 

Rider orchestrated the change for two main reasons. Prices for digital signs have come down “to be in line with what an operator can afford,” she said, although she declined to discuss what the DQ signs cost. And the flood of digital signage that pushed prices lower means people see such signs everywhere, and want them. “With that saturation of the market you also have the need to be relevant,” she said. 

DQ is joined by other franchise brands that are switching to digital signage, especially in restaurants, retail, financial services and hospitality sectors. Vendors say they expect more to follow, and are rushing to adapt offerings to fill the need. 

With so many players the choice is complicated. Rider said she reviewed 20 companies that responded to her request for information, and six answered the request for proposal. She chose Stratacache of Dayton, Ohio, which provides both the software to create the changing content and the equipment in the stores.

Training employees at corporate headquarters to operate the software can be tough, too. “We’re finding you have to train everyone that you bring on board to work on this, because it’s so new. It’s all built a little different,” she said about each system and equipment package vendors sell.

Urge to connect

Sheldon Silverman, CEO of SmartBomb Media in Chicago, has been in the digital signage game for three years as a vendor, developing a network of digital signs in check-cashing locations throughout the country that generate revenue through advertising. The young firm is a growth vehicle separate from his older, more established traditional advertising agency.

From testing signs in 15 stores in Chicago and New York, their network now extends to 300 locations with plans for another 300 to 500. “Our customer is the under-banked consumer, ethnic, and mainly in urban areas. They’re very, very high-volume transaction locations,” he said about the check-cashing outlets.

Although digital signs have become abundant in the last three to four years, only this year can Silverman report the rise of what he calls digital connected signage, the latest evolution as advertisers seek to interact directly with all those customers watching those screens as they wait in line to complete their transactions.

“We are coupling the digital out-of-home experience with the mobile experience,” Silverman said, a must because of the rise of digital recording devices and on-demand TV. So few people are watching commercials on regular TV, he said, that advertisers must “find new methodologies to reach that consumer. For most of them the end game is mobile.”

“The concept is to not only be able to see a large-screen TV when you’re waiting in line to do a bank transaction, but you’re then able to connect with the advertiser in some way,” Silverman said. Customers could scan a QR or quick-response code and get a discount coupon on their phone, for example. 

He figures franchise brands, particularly for fast food, will like SmartBomb’s network because it targets a difficult-to-reach consumer, during the time they’re making a financial transaction. He noted check-cashing firms are the main movers of prepaid debit cards, and prepaid debit cards are the credit card of the under-banked consumer. More than 70 percent of all the payments on prepaid debit cards go to fast food, he said. 

He thinks new regulations requiring restaurants to post calorie counts will only push the trend further. “For fast food it makes more sense for them to use digital for the new dietary laws, because every time they change the menu they’d have to re-do their static signage,” Silverman said. 

Keeping up with the Marriotts

For Zach Glenn, vice president of e-commerce and public relations for Helm Hotels Group in Denton, Texas, digital signage was a must for keeping up with the Joneses—or to be specific, with the Marriott Courtyards.

His is a Best Western Premier Property, so designated by the brand in 2011 when it rewrote the descriptions for its Basic, Plus and Premier hotels. “They’re top-of-the-line. They have a restaurant, a bar. We compete with Marriott Courtyard,” he said. 

And Marriott Courtyard has the Go Board, an interactive digital display that has proven popular with customers. Helm Hotels wanted something like it of its own. At a convention, they reached out to Hughes Solutions Group, a company that had provided digital connectivity to hotel chains for years, allowing individual hotels to tap into a reservation system back at headquarters.

It wasn’t a big leap to develop a related product they call Digital Concierge, where a user can tap the screen to get restaurant recommendations or driving instructions. Glenn said it’s a good solution for hotels like his, which don’t offer the very top service—humans acting as concierges—but still want to please customers.  “I wouldn’t say it’s brought us more business, but I can say it’s kept business, away from others. It’s something extra,” Glenn said. 

Mike Tippetts is vice president of Hughes Solutions Group in Salt Lake City, which created the Digital Concierge product for Helm. He sees a lot of promise for the system, both for “guest-facing” systems like the one in Glenn’s hotel, and for “employee-facing” systems that provide training and such for hotel workers.

Cost depends on the size of the screen, from $2,500 to $3,000 for the equipment, plus perhaps $50 for the monthly service fee. Like other users of digital signage, Glenn said it’s a cost his group must bear. “If customers are expecting that level of digital display, then that’s what we have to provide.” 


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