Our visual language continues to evolve faster than our spoken or written word. That evolution sits at the confluence of disruptive everything; from the viability of broadcast media to the science of visual merchandising. It also circumscribes a generational shift in how and where we access information.
If our screen owning habits are changing, how has that affected our screen watching habits in retail and other places outside our home? Ten years ago, our measurement data suggested that a television-based image attracted twice the number of eyeballs as a static paper-based image. Remember the video walls in stores and shopping malls that were some weird commercial rendition of a Nam Jung Paik art installation? It was brilliant the first, and maybe also the second time you saw it, but eye-straining thereafter.
We’ve tested flat screens in stores, banks, movie theaters, restaurants, and airports – even in doctors’ office waiting rooms. The key to getting watched was placement and content. In places where people waited with little to do, or where eyeballs were free to look around, screens got the most exposure. If the content was crisp, visually compelling and short, it captured more views. If it was recycled ads or infomercials, the screens had to compete with other content more worthy of watching; magazines; or at the most basic level, anything else in the room the viewer could find to look at.
But like so many innovations that follow “more is better” logic, if two screens worked, wouldn’t 27 screens work even better? The answer is unequivocally no. The more screens we put in, the more we add to the visual noise of the space, and in effect drive our visitors into their own personal screens for relief. When we made the screen messaging too loud or visually intrusive, some visitors found it objectionable. So flat screens, tablets, even mobile screens are not ubiquitous merchandising solutions, but rather tech tools that need to be used strategically to maximize a given opportunity.
Whose Screen Are You Watching?
We now face the next generation of other interactive touch screens that emulate our mobile phones and tablets. Whatever its size, the technologists point out that a screen gets
watched, not just by the person doing the swiping, but also by the curious bystander watching the interaction over the shoulder of the active participant. Sort of like second-hand smoke, but in a good way. The key difference is that interaction by definition is up close and personal, so the pass-along effect of interactive messaging is still inconclusive.
This new generation of touch screens has its barriers. The first is getting the customer to approach the screen in the first place and recognize it as an interactive device. We have two touch-screen prototypes in branches for the same global bank: one in a metro station in Singapore, the other on 14th Street in New York City. The design elements for both branches were very similar, but the locations could not be more different. The Singapore train station branch is small and crowded, filled with young, tech-industry workers. The 14th Street branch in New York is large and generously proportioned with a very broad customer base. In Singapore, the interactive screens are in use all day long. People play with them and other people watch them playing. It’s part distraction, part entertainment, and some information gathering mixed in. We call it a success. So many fingers touch the screens that the microbial content can be an issue. The bank and branch designers know it’s a good problem to have when the screen needs cleaning several times a day.
In the 14th Street branch, the screens are poorly placed with little regard to either traffic patterns or waiting zones and thus are decorative rather than functional. Not one person in a hundred entering the branch uses them; and most have no idea that the screen is anything other than a static, passive screen.
Retail Wins and Misses
The recently renovated Kate Spade store at 20th and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has an interactive table at the doorway. Both the greeter and the security guard are trained to demonstrate its magic for you. The new store had been open for a month; the interactive table had been inoperative since the first week. This common situation proves once again that broken technology on the retail floor is worse than having no technology on the floor at all. Ideal conditions for the screen are at night when there is no ambient light coming in from the window; during the day the images are faint, washed out by the daylight. The technology is very cool, and must have looked great in the showroom, but in a real setting, it just wasn’t thought through.
Two better examples are the new Sprint and Verizon Wireless prototype stores. Both make extensive use of interactive screens and devices. Part of what makes them effective is that they are designed to be used in conjunction with store associates, who in effect become digital sales experts demonstrating the technology all day long. The Sprint store has the same messaging run on two differently sized screens: one very large where the whole world can watch; the other much smaller and more private. Not surprisingly, the associates are trained to steer the younger customers to the big screen, the older ones to the small. I was reminded of a job 20 years ago for a branch bank in California which was installing its first ATMs. The branch hired two very attractive young women who would intercept customers in the teller line and ask if they could introduce them to the ATM. They had been well trained, and the line they used for older customers was, “It’s just like a slot machine, only you never lose.”
Everyone in the tech world has been caught flat-footed as our relationships to screens have changed. From Google to Alibaba to Amazon, our migration from big screens to small screens has business, especially retail, scrambling to follow. Internet business models relying on advertising revenue faced little or no space to place those ads. Search engines now compete with smart phone apps that have the potential to make websites, as we know them, obsolete.
So, screens are effective digital tools for retailers, whatever device they appear on. Savvy retailers know how to use them for different customer groups. The digital divide is alive and well, but Boomers are just as open to how technology can give them information and make their lives more interesting – just like their Millennial progeny. The opportunity is to deploy touch screen technology to enhance the customer experience, and the joy is that it works in any culture and language, it’s that intuitive.