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The Coming Digital Sign Blitz: Help or Horror?

This column was written by Evan Schuman, the editor of StorefrontBacktalk, a site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and security issues. Retail Realities appears every Friday. Evan can be reached at e-mail and on Twitter.



Few store managers question the power of well-placed digital signage, but the cost for acquiring and maintaining such systems can be daunting. What if retailers could get full access to a network of hundreds of customized pieces of digital signage, which they could place anywhere in their stores, displaying any message, all of it being paid for by a supplier?

The only price in this Faustian deal: You need to let your customers take the signs home with them, after they've paid you $40 or more for the privilege.

This strange scenario is prompted by a rollout of a new line of Dutch Vodka. (No jokes please about Dutch Vodka, beyond reminding readers about a wonderful moment in an early James Bond film -You Only Live Twice-where 007 kills an enemy agent and steals a drink from his refrigerator, before spitting it out after he looks at the label and disgustedly says, "Siamese Vodka!")

The bottle sports a digital label, where consumers can program any message they want a gift recipient to see. But the company-Medea Vodka-that the next version will include remote and wireless programming, which would be fully controlled by the retailer, until that particular bottle is purchased.

Digital signage-the kind that retailers pay full freight for-has been making some important progress recently, from ="" ="">Wal-Mart's efforts to include realtime data, to NEC's attempts to use hair color and ear shape to identify the consumers who walk nearby and various ways that the signs can interact with consumer cellphones.

Whether this particular product-or its company-will survive is somewhat beside the point. The concept of programmable bottles-and, for matter, other product packages-is fascinating.

What if the store wanted to use these flashing messages on these bottles-strategically positioned in every aisle-to push strawberries or a sale on Tide detergent? The contents of the product displaying the message would be irrelevant.

Irrelevant, that is, unless you wanted it to be relevant. Example: "Congrats! Our local sports team just won, three minutes ago, 96 to 4, leaving the evil Losing Sports Team yelping and crying for Mommy. Drink me tonight to celebrate!" or the same message in the reverse, offering for the bottle to be drunk to drown the sorrows of having been clobbered by the competition.

It's the idea of a network of these free-to the retailer-products displaying as many customized messages as you'd that has potential. And there's no reason the signs all have to say the same thing. Why not program the cereal aisle bottles to say different things than the frozen food bottles?

But this is a future goal. Today's version of the bottles-at least the ones from Medea-are a bit primitive. Their messages are limited to 140 characters, which is less than the length of two Twitter Tweets. (The bottle can handle 255 characters and Tweets are capped at 140 characters.)

They also must be individually programmed, which would make them much less interesting to retailers. They are supposed to be programmed by consumers, but I somehow don't see that happening very often.

Why? Let's look at the site's instructions for consumers. How much time will a consumer give for instructions on creating a bottle message? Not sure, but it's probably safe to say that a six-step process is way too much.

From their site: "Step 1: Press the ON/OFF button. Step 2: Press the ENTER button to enter programming mode. Step 3: Press the P-U (UP) to select line (1-6) to save message in. Step 4: Press ENTER to confirm the line where the message will appear. Step 5: Press the P-U and P-D buttons to find the first character of your message, and press ENTER to save after each character selection. Note: space can be found after the letter Z. Step 6: To finish, after you have selected the last character, wait until you see a blinking "A", then press the ON/OFF to save the entire message. You're all set! Your message will now begin to scroll on the ticker." No problem.

It gets better. The site's Q&A asks a good question: "I saved an incorrect character. Can I delete/edit or do I have to start my message over?" The answer: "Deleting and editing are not currently possible. You will have to start your message over."

Yeah, that's going to go over really well.

But if the line survives to get to phase two, where retailers can wirelessly control the messages from the LAN and where consumers can enter the messages from their computers, this may be the start of a whole new way of looking at digital signage. But much more testing is needed. I will selflessly pick up
eight or nine Vodka bottles this weekend and start practicing. What I won't do to help move retail to the next level.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com

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