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Maximising every space

Digital screens in stores are becoming a central part of the customer experience, marketing and store design strategy, rather than mere substitutes for posters, writes Barnaby Page, Editor of

In-store screens have come a long way in the decade-plus since they were dubbed “digital signage” and served as little more than replacements for printed posters, or – for a few courageous retailers – showed loops of supposedly mood-enhancing, but often pointless, video (mountain brooks for the outdoor store, celebrity chefs in the pasta aisle, that kind of thing).

The term “digital signage” may have stuck, but it is less apt by the year, for today’s retail digital displays are much, much more than fancy signs. Perhaps the biggest change in terms of their functionality has been the development of interactivity, both through touchscreens and through the multifarious ways they can connect with consumers’ mobile phones – SMS, Bluetooth, QR codes, wi-fi, and now social media and near field communication (NFC). It could persuasively be argued that very often, the on-screen content itself is no longer the object of the digital signage exercise: instead, it is the lure for the consumer to begin a one-to-one digital interaction, which is where the really valuable engagement takes place, and where it can continue long after they have left the screen’s vicinity.

At the same time, there have been equally far-reaching – if less immediately obvious – changes in the way that retail management perceive digital signage, and the ways that its practitioners devise screen installations for shops. For instance, in-store video has become more astutely comprehended as a medium in its own right, one that is not print, not the Web, and definitely not TV: perhaps the most visible example of this is the understanding that in many retail contexts the on-screen content must grab, inform and engage the consumer in a matter of seconds, far shorter even than a television commercial.

Retailers have also learned what to expect from their screens. They can certainly achieve a respectable ROI, but they will get this in sales uplift on promoted products or – less tangibly but in the long term more importantly – through closer customer relationships, not from selling advertising as some early adopters hoped. Defining the route to ROI, and then designing essential elements of the screen deployment (such as the content, and the specific in-store screen locations) to achieve this, is the crucial decision. Simply filling a large number of shopper eyeballs with any old content because they are there to be filled, or rolling out a screen network because the other guy is, are well-established routes to failure.


Retailers are also seeing in-store digital displays as part of a larger picture of shopper marketing and customer relationships. The way that screens are often employed to initiate a connection then carried on via mobile or online – for instance, by encouraging a shopper to text an SMS shortcode in order to receive an instant discount on the product adjacent to the screen – is a good example of this. The growing presence of tablets in stores is providing further means for interaction with the display.

It is becoming apparent, too, that media work to enhance one another: the combination of an in-store screen promotion, a TV campaign in customers’ living rooms, outdoor posters as they walk through the retailer’s car park, and mobile messaging (wherever they are) may be more effective than the sum total of the four approaches would be if they were taken individually.

Indeed, this holistic approach to digital screens as part of the overall marketing presentation and overall shopping experience goes further. For the most forward-thinking retailers, the public screen can be seen as an extension of the store itself, similar but different to the way that the online screen is an extension of the bricks-and-mortar store. With this philosophy, digital signage (or digital out-of-home, as it’s increasingly commonly, and better, called) has moved far beyond its old, niche in-store marketing role as a digital replacement for printed POS.

Certainly, in-store displays still usefully perform many of their relatively straightforward old functions: promoting special offers, generating sales uplift by advertising individual products, providing customer information, reducing perceived wait times by distracting queuers at the checkout, and so on. They also continue to have the advantage that, being networked, their content can be subject to a high level of centralised control by marketing or other departments, ensuring consistent messaging across a retailer’s estate (while also leaving discretion over some content to local management where desired).


However, like ecommerce, screens can also create new kinds of presence for the retailer and new kinds of interactions, and like other digital investments they can be more cost-effective than ploughing money into stores and store sites.

For instance, screens can be used to extend the store’s stock through interactive catalogues, creating the “endless aisle” which offers far more SKUs than the building ever could – a familiar concept from ecommerce, of course, but done in-store.

Or they can extend the retailer’s brand to new physical locations where it would be impractical, too expensive, or just physically impossible to operate a conventional store. Interesting experiments have been conducted with virtual screen-based stores of this kind in public transport hubs, in both Europe and Asia; the broad idea is that commuters can order their shopping while waiting for their train, then collect it from a bricks-and-mortar store or dedicated pick-up point at their destination, or have it delivered to their home.

You may well observe at this point that this is no different to what any online grocer does, and you’d be nearly right; but the difference is that the public screens in high-footfall areas are pushing the retail brand toward the consumer in a much more visible way than can be achieved purely online. Again, the screen is not the raison d’etre of the project: the goal is customer engagement, and the screen is a means of enabling that (or, if you prefer, the screen is effectively an advertisement for the possibility of engagement with the retail brand).

Screens can extend retailers’ physical presence in other ways, too. Displays in windows – especially interactive ones – ensure that retail premises continue to work hard for the brand even out of opening hours, whether by handling actual transactions or whetting the consumer appetite for a visit tomorrow. Outside-facing screens, often large ones on the walls, can also be used to highlight the store’s presence in crowded locations such as malls, or major shopping hubs like Times Square; the neon sign concept, but with all the benefits of full-motion video and potential interactivity.

At the other end of the scale, screens can provide the retailer with flexibility and agility when creating short-term outlets, for example at festivals. For visual merchandising in these environments, they can be less complex and costly to install than sophisticated store fittings, and again they bring all the promotional and interactive benefits that they deliver in permanent premises.

Where is all this leading? Further and further away from the screen as sign, that’s for sure, and closer toward the integration of digital media with every aspect of store design and the shopper’s visit. We’ll know that digital displays for retail are truly fulfilling their potential when they stop being thought of as a distinct medium, and start being seen – as they already are by insightful retailers – as an integral part of the store and the customer relationship.

For now, however, it needs to be remembered that as public screens grow more common and cease to be any kind of novelty, user expectations of their functionality and relevance are growing, and so is the need to stand out from the digital crowd; doing it right is more important than ever. Forget signs, think about business goals and customer engagement, and you’ll be a long way toward achieving that.

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