You got rid of the landline three years ago because two-thirds of your calls were from telemarketers. Then you downgraded your cable service wondering why you were paying so much for so little. Now you watch stuff on your Tablet and laptop more and more. And when the price of a New York Times went up to $2.50, you decided to read news online from a wider variety of sources, and like it decidedly better.
Today, you live a new kind of life than you did five years ago. You have several e-mail addresses so that you can filter the spam. The snail mail is more than 90% junk so you’ve even stopped opening it; the envelope gets a glance and often gets chucked. When you drive, it’s commercial-free Satellite Radio since traditional ads, with their crazy voices and incoherent offerings, drive you crazy. You loved Marc Gobé’s film, This Space Available, downgrading billboards, and outdoor media in general, to visual pollutant status. You take a pleasure in buying the store’s house brand, not because you have to, but because the ‘superiority’ of branded products is something you seriously question. We watch commercials at the Super Bowl and Oscars for the entertainment value and once in a while on YouTube; the rest of the time you conspire to avoid them.
In-Store In Your Face
But no matter how savvy or sophisticated we are, we can’t ignore advertising and promotions at the point of sale. And very often, when we’re shopping, we don’t mind; we’re looking to be sold to and game for new products and services. So it’s no surprise that the in-store, below-the-line advertising world is thriving. It went from the premise that ‘if three signs work, then 27 signs will work better!’ overkill, to today’s more focused and intelligent treatment on the information architecture of both brick-and-mortar as well as online. The right information, at the right moment, with the appropriate message, can mean the difference between a sale and a walkout (or a click-out).
Still, the world of below-the-line is still struggling with its heritage. The long-term business model of below-the-line, you gave away the creative to get the order. Since the Point of Purchase (POP) industry was historically rooted in the sin industries (read alcohol and tobacco), many of the deals were subject to negotiation on the golf course. As POP has grown, the faint smell of corruption has been hard to get rid of.
Who’s Actually Buying All This Stuff?
Another painful process has been in understanding the difference between Shoppers and Consumers. Or more aptly, who buys stuff and who consumes stuff? The answer can be surprising. Years ago we ran a test for Super Bowl promotions in-store and found that two-thirds of those shopping for Super Bowl Parties (read: female) didn’t know the celebrity athlete typically featured on various salty snack packages. Companies were spending millions for recognizable faces that the real shoppers, well, didn’t recognize. In-store, the most personal and unavoidable of merchandising opportunities, rides on the coattails of print and broadcast media, which makes no sense at all.
How do we prove in-store marketing works? It is the million-dollar question of the research world. PoPAI, the aging trade association of the display industry, and its active rival, The Path to Purchase Institute (formerly the In-store Marketing Institute), have both announced solutions that have faded in cold light of day. The premise that someone looks at a sign or passes a display, and then buys because of that display, is difficult to prove. A decade ago, the sad truth was that a third of displays shipped to a store never made it out to the floor. Modern corporate guidelines and compliance systems, not to mention the ongoing presence of mystery shoppers, now help to enforce that process, but the realities of the in-store experience keep retail and brand executives up at night.
As money gets taken out of print and broadcast and put into in-store, event and on-line the CPG companies are looking for proof that it “works”. We already know that traditional tools used in sales and media research don’t work; you can’t interview people about what they see or don’t see since much of that information is subliminally recorded and thus cannot be reported. In-store advertising can build the familiarity with brands, and predilection to purchase, which might mean next week, next month or next year.
We are at the tail end of our fascination with technology at the point of purchase. The first romance was with flat screens, which was built on the failed assumption that shoppers view TVs in-store the same way we do at home. Our findings were that, while a moving flat-screen image would attract twice the number of eyeballs as a static sign, it held that “look” for an identical amount of time. The worst and most common mistake was loading an in-store flat screen with the 30-second television commercial. It became visual and often auditory pollution.
Where a flat screen works is in a special, specific place: where people wait for prescribed amounts of time. Getting a prescription filled at a drug store, waiting for sandwich at a deli, or waiting in line at a bank. The key understanding is that much of that viewing time happens after the order is made, not before, so that the focus of the message should be on future consumption, not immediate. We are able to track and understand the efficacy of this, down to the precision of how long the loop should be and exactly what content shoppers want to view.
The second tech fascination is with the kiosk. I saw one the other day in the liquor section of a hypermarket, which matched cocktails and wine to occasions and meals. It’s a good idea, but with a major flaw hard to overcome: the amount of information the user had to input before they got useful output. The abandonment rate for American in-store kiosks is very high already, and this simple but painful reality rendered the kiosk a colorful commercial sculpture. Further, in America we are most likely to have the bored, mischievous nine-year-old in tow that likes nothing better than reordering shelves and turning kiosks into jungle gyms, so a kiosk that doesn’t work becomes a liability.
Surfing Into the Future
A lot of people are asking: What is the future of in-store? And the surprising truth is, it’s not in-store at all, but in your pocket. Surfing the web and downloading material to our smart phones is voluntary, done recreationally. We shop and buy online for purpose, but also for fun. It’s the future of shopping.
But even as our nation improves and evolves, bureaucracy and red tape inevitably hold us back from formally articulating the need to reduce waste in our landfills, and preserve natural resources, via technology. It might take three years, but more realistically five: Call it the Green Marketing Act of 2018, where the messaging historically put on a package must be in bytes and not in cardboard. Goodbye, plastic and cardboard and hello, efficiency
and large-scale cost-cutting.
And then we get to pick and choose what we want to look at, products and services we want marketed to us, and even optimized for the screen of our choice. Even though the future of retail is today, we may have to wait five years for it.