It is a long-standing truth that retail is a highly competitive and ever-changing business. The pandemic added even more pressure. The expansion of online shopping has made the business even more cut-throat, whilst customer habits have changed pretty drastically. Sharp/NEC works with retailers of all sizes across Europe because one widely deployed tool is digital signage. This paper shares some of the trends and changes that Sharp/NEC sees happening across the retail market in Europe.
Why digital signage matters
Digital displays and interactive signage solutions have revolutionised customer communication already, to a certain degree, at a time when it’s desperately needed. In-store communications with customers are both more precise and more current with digital signage. The flexibility of a robust content management system is irreplaceable in designing the customer journey. Meanwhile, the efficiency of connecting all channels makes the work easier. Yet these days - especially due to the impact of the COVID pandemic - there is much more to talk about when retailers want to use or expand a basic signage set-up to become more efficient and effective.
At the most basic level, retailers are using digital signage to boost sales through a stellar and unified customer experience. Now more than ever, the customer experience often begins online. Customers will seek information before heading to the store to see and feel for themselves. That means retailers need to provide a consistent experience across channels and touchpoints. This is described as the omnichannel experience. Further, they must bridge the gap between the digital and physical world, a concept that’s often referred to with the newly created buzzword “phygital”. The better that overall experience is, the more likely a customer is to purchase something.
Sharp and vivid digital signage with good content means retailers can impress customers with the first thing they see upon entering and the last thing they see before leaving. It also helps effectively draw them in and efficiently direct them through the purchasing areas. In this cut-throat environment, many retailers are deploying digital signage to do exactly this. Market Research Future recently forecast that the global digital signage market will increase by about $27.8 billion by 2026.
How retailers use digital signage
Digital signage first entered the retail environment as a replacement for more traditional paper and cardboard signage. Retailers were quick, however, to realise the advantage that comes with more flexible content management. Instead of product posters and wayfinding that had to be changed manually on a frequent basis, digital signage lets retailers change their look by the minute. However, this process of replacement was only the beginning of the possibilities.
Digital signage has boundless possibilities for interactive solutions that truly engage customers. This goes far beyond the now-popular self-service checkouts. Mirror glass displays are popping up in fitting rooms and on sales floors to gamify shopping. Set up in a changing room, a mirror embedded in a display can show off the person’s outfit in the perfect setting, such as seeing yourself on a pristine beach when you try on a swimsuit. Mirror glass displays can also be used to cross-sell by suggesting complementary items, whether in the fitting room or on the sales floor. Displays throughout the floor can keep customers updated on style trends or sales. They can even be used for digital fittings.
Digital signage in public spaces
Another way that businesses of all stripes are deploying digital signage is in the public space. Even before the pandemic, businesses used signage on the street to inform, entertain and entice. Outdoor signage was developed specifically for this use case, with an image that’s bright enough to be seen clearly in any light and a casing tough enough to withstand changing weather. This type of signage is also popular with urban management, as long as it’s paired with a content management system that makes it easier to send news and updates to displays across the city.
The challenges of the COVID pandemic have brought a whole new set of needs. Not only do urban planners need easy ways to update citizens and visitors about safety measures, but stores also need to adhere to new safety practices. Retailers are using attention-getting signage to inform customers about what is necessary in the store, such as mask usage or carrying a shopping basket. COVID will also have an effect on future generations of signage, as the disruption to the global supply chain is prompting individual sectors to heighten safety protocols and the industry to design solutions with higher safety standards.
Customisation and privacy in data-driven usage
Even as businesses and governments are rapidly adopting signage as a tool, the solutions themselves are adapting to trends in society and at the head of the technological curve. A good example of both is data-driven usage. It’s been a huge talking point across technology over the past few years. As solutions produced more and more information about users and viewers, there was a real explosion of ways to take advantage of that data.
That increased data-driven usage, however, has met two challenges. Europe’s GDPR law not only placed legal limits on the usage of personalised data but also made the public at large much more aware of both the ubiquity of personal data collection and its potential for misuse. In the past year alone, there’s been a much sharper awareness of privacy in the public sphere. Both the law and public perception have led businesses to attempt to strike a balance between respecting individual privacy and making the best possible usage of data.
One popular solution is data in aggregate, so individual characteristics are not stored but overall trends are. This can work in a couple of different ways. Some sensors are attached to an ERP system that only shows in-stock products. These kinds of processes can even be automated. In combination with an AI solution that tries to read characteristics like age or gender, then deletes the data once it’s been analysed, signage systems become even more effective. A solution like this could, for example, tell a retailer how many young women stopped to watch a video display in the window, but there would be no way to see anything about individual viewers. Additionally, retailers could then only show those in-stock items to that respective audience.
Another good example of aggregated and anonymised data usage is Sharp/NEC’s Entrance Flow Management. The retail solution uses integrated sensors to register individual movement but not personal characteristics. There are a couple usages of content linked to movement. One obvious example is to restart content as someone approaches it, whether it’s to engage with a window shopper or as part of an in-store campaign to encourage a certain product or tie-in. Another successful method is using Entrance Flow Management in a large store with several exits and hubs to ensure people see specific information at different stages of the customer journey. Because it collects data in aggregate, managers can see where there might be traffic issues without impinging on customers’ privacy.
The pieces of Entrance Flow Management were already in play before COVID, but it’s quickly been adapted in response to COVID regulations. The displays don’t just ensure that each person sees the current precautionary measures as they approach the store. They also can operate occupancy limits without intervention by employees. Sensors in the door can count people as they enter and exit, flashing a wait message when the store has reached capacity and a welcome message when there’s room for another customer.
Data about the store and its surrounding environment can also be used to customise the experience. Displays can adjust according to weather or time of day as easily as they can adjust according to customer traffic. Some solutions even adjust ads and infotainment content according to ongoing sales numbers. Small adjustments like these can have strong effects on customer engagement.
With all this evolution in signage, it’s important to look at the solutions from a practical angle and see what they can bring for the future of retail. Of course, displays should heighten the customer experience, so there are some things, such as a stylish appearance, that are fundamental. Other characteristics can make a huge difference depending on their usage. Solutions can now be modified so that everything, from the frame to the content system, is suited to its environment. It’s important to customise the solution to each business, but there are some overall things to look at.
First of all, it needs to be big and bright. Customers’ attention and time are scarce. Bright displays - whether they’re based on LCD or LED technology - with vivid colours and attention-grabbing content have been proven to both draw customers into stores and direct their experience once they’re in. For most retail environments, large format displays are important because they’re easy to read, even from a distance.
Everything needs to be done to make content both attention-grabbing and easy to take in. It’s the difference between being bright enough to be noticed and so bright that viewers look away. To be effective, displays must be crisp and clear. That means they need high resolution and high contrast, so content is effortless to take in. Accurate colour rendering, which includes a wide and precise colour spectrum, is also important to make sure the eye is drawn to content, rather than bouncing off it. It’s important to get the right pixel pitch for indoor versus outdoor use. What looks vibrant in the right spot can be scratchy or uneven under the wrong conditions.
The solution can even help make sure content runs well. First and foremost, the content management system must be easy to use and update. Even the most forward-planning or data-responsive solution will need updates from multiple team members, so that should be part of the planning. It should be able to showcase multiple formats, as creative is often adapted on the fly. One example of this is the current call for displays that can play content shot for mobile. Retailers are using their ad space to show off their TikTok mentions.
It doesn’t matter if those systems run on-premise or in the cloud. There is no single rule of thumb, as both solutions have their benefits. Of course, these are beyond security standards, as meeting those is a bare minimum for any solution. Displays with sealed computing, ideally that’s modular yet integrated into the display, are favoured for meeting all of these requirements.
The final piece to look at is sustainability, in all its forms. It’s becoming a key indicator for brands across sectors. Retailers should look for displays with efficient power consumption. They should look at the materials used in the display. For example, metal casings aren’t just better for fire resistance than plastic; they’re more sustainable as well. One often ignored facet is durability, but it’s actually quite important to divide environmental impact across the years of usage. This is one of the reasons that LEDs have become so popular. Well-made and high-quality LED displays are more long-lasting, keeping their quality across many years of usage.
Retail businesses across Europe are finding new ways to deploy retail signage to attract and retain customers. Now is the time to excite customers with intelligent and powerful signage systems, that meet an omnichannel approach and stimulate all the senses to make in-person shopping a much more pleasing experience. Aggregate data-driven solutions protect customers’ privacy whilst providing content that can solve traffic flow and adapt messaging according to the viewer and situation. The fundamentals of successful signage, however, remain constant: vivid imagery in vibrant colours, easy-to-use content management and long-lasting reliability.