The Digital Signage Insider

Pushback Against Kiosks and Narrowcast Networks

Published on: 2005-05-20

With the Digital Retailing Expo just wrapping up, and most industry pundits and analysts presenting bullish views on the market, I've come across a few articles lately that remind us that sometimes more isn't always better.

The first is a widely publicized article from the Chicago Tribune titled "service gets lost in self-serve world," (registration required) by Steven Swanson. It was written about a month ago, but lately has been picked apart in a number of counter-articles from the powers that be at kiosks.org and elsewhere, and for good reason. Swanson suggests that, "[t]he explosion in self-serve options is generating a backlash," citing self-serve gas pumps and ATMs as vehicles of laziness by big corporate entities that are making consumers do too much work. Yet later on in his own article he cites Dennis Galletta, an information systems professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management, who says, "People want this... I think nowadays people are less patient. People not only want this technology, they demand it."

So go figure. In my opinion, customers tend to be fairly vocal about what they like and what they don't like. The continuing push towards self-service (via kiosk devices, handhelds, etc.) suggests that people do like being able to help themselves and save time in the process. And of course, my opinion is mirrored by Greg Swistak, Executive Director of the Kiosks.org Association (KOA). In his rebuttal to the Swanson article, he notes that, "In a recent MarketWatch interview, Carol Tome, chief financial officer of The Home Depot, reported that self-service check-outs deployed in Home Depot stores are popular with customers. In fact, one out of three customers choose self-service machines when they are available. Why? Because when the machines are available, check-out time is reduced by 40 percent. Besides the convenience and shorter time spent in the store, consumers also benefit from increased employee assistance on the sales floor. Employees who used to operate the check-outs now assist shoppers by finding items or answering questions."

Swanson's claim that self-service devices reduce the amount of "face time" that customers get with store employees seems to be further deflated by Tome's observations at The Home Depot. In fact, many of our clients using self-service kiosks note that the applications and information that the kiosk provides allow their staff to service customers better, increasing the face time available for personalized customer interactions. A recent article from ePaynews indicates the same trend: 36% of consumers surveyed in stores that currently lack self-checkout systems said they would like to see self-checkout installed.

Of course, the digital signage industry isn't without its own skeptics. Two articles have been brought to my attention recently that deal with the distraction and visual clutter that digital signs can create. The first comes from this article at Yahoo News about Loews Theatres playing commercials before movies begin. This is a hot-button topic for many moviegoers, especially because some theaters will actually push back the start time of the movies to show commercials (which is what the Yahoo article is really about). Some initial research has suggested that this approach is going to backfire, and in fact an online group has even sprung up at www.captiveaudience.org to protest in-theater marketing. On top of this is the work of nonprofit groups like Commercial Alert, who seek to reduce the amount of marketing and commercial advertising content that we encounter in our day-to-day lives.

The important part (for us, at least) is that many of the theater chains use networked digital signage players hooked up to a projector to show the pre-movie content. They can thus generate playlists of information, entertainment and commercial content and distribute it to different theaters using networked narrowcasting technology instead of having to send out DVDs every few weeks or rely on local management to make up PowerPoint presentations and slide shows for each theater. So now we have an application which paints digital signage in a bad light, is perceived poorly by the majority of its audience, and has garnered the attention of the national press. Not good.

This news comes on the heels of another article, this time from The Feature, entitled "Intrusion doesn't constitute advertising." The author focuses on a supposedly opt-in campaign to send Bluetooth messages to user's cellphones, but his argument easily extends to other digital retailing techniques as well. He does make one good point: if the content on your digital displays isn't compelling viewers to watch, but is instead forcing them (because of logistics or layout or whatever), then you're not going to be marketing to them at all -- you're going to be alienating them.

So what should the takeaway here be? Nobody wants to deploy a system that will discourage use, decrease customer satisfaction, or worse. But at the same time, retailers and others are always on the lookout for ways to increase revenue and market their products. There has to be a balance point somewhere, and of course it's going to be entirely dependent upon your application, your audience, and the captivity of said audience.

Hmm... sounds like the start of another blog article :)


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