Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Consumer connections: Information creates sales

I did a little bit of commuting this summer, two nights a week, two hours each way back on a major highway, to teach a course. This meant I spent a lot of time at the gas pump, usually at a rest area so I wouldn’t have to pull off, pay a toll, and pull back on again. These rest area gas pumps were where I first encountered gas station digital signage and it wasn’t a happy experience. The problem, as I see it, is twofold: The commercials don’t distract from the fact that we’re all paying a lot more for gasoline, nor do they entice customers into the food court or shops in the rest area. It’s just advertising and music, loud and reverberating across the bank of pumps. There's nothing to be gained from listening. As I watched each night, almost all the other drivers would quickly fill up, grimacing, and jump back into their cars and onto the highway.

Some new digital media are jarring in our first encounters (self checkout at the supermarket) but eventually we adapt. Others remain annoying (CNN streaming video in the airport), especially when many of us waiting have our own digital media in hand and don’t want or need the extra noise. But what if digital media enhanced the consumer experience, giving customers a definitive source for information and knowledge? (Certain installations in medical offices and hospitals come to mind...)

Recently, Promo magazine highlighted some ways to use digital and other media that are more in line with consumer needs than merely filling more spaces with advertisements. In fact, the media itself is subordinate to customer service (Promo highlights "friendliness, helpfulness, and clarity" as the basis for a good approach). One key example was of shelf-level video commercials or information-based segments:
"Provides in-depth information for inquiring customers who are ready to buy. For example, video makes it possible to speak out to older customers who cannot always read small print, or meet the needs of non-English speaking customers who rely on visual images for product information. Informative labels at the shelf-edge increases shopper awareness and drives volume at the point of decision. Displaying key pricing and product information coupled with a clear, bold sales message proves a value-added convenience. Building in integrated marketing messages at multiple touch points throughout the shopping trip keeps the desired brand at the forefront of the customer's mind."
Promo suggests that this is also a great way to educate consumers about what’s available. Yes, it's branding, but it's also about informed choice. In my supermarket there are now so many varieties of store-brand natural eggs, including “organic,” “omega-3,” “free range,” and some combination of those three. I’d be more likely to buy some if I knew more about how they came up with those designations. For now, I stick to the name brand organics because I know more about them.

Promo further notes that that, "retailers can easily incorporate easy-to-read, data-driven, integrated shelf communications that operate as color-coded nutrition 'flags' to identify foods that meet special dietary needs, such as gluten free, healthy kids, organic and/or heart healthy." Given how products are constantly morphing, it’d be great to have more information right at the point-of-sale. If I see something new and interesting, I’m likely to look it over the first time, go home, do a little research (or at least mull it over), and then if I’m satisfied and see it again in the store, buy it. Imagine how happy retailers would be if I skipped the middle step.

I wish the folks who thought of the digital signage at gas stations were thinking in this way. How about information about road conditions, weather reports (okay, I saw one weather update in my six weeks of commuting), or even ideas about how to save money while traveling (maybe Obama is not the only one who thinks you need more air in your tires)? Digital signage definitely has the capacity to go everywhere. The question is, once it's there, how will it prove its worth?

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