Ready for Prime Time

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2004-03-01 Print this article Print

Digital displays may soon become signs of the times. But is Advance Auto Parts' five-year-old system of delivering messages by satellite hitting a speedbump?

Ready for Prime Time

The Advance network has been in place in many stores for five years, and will soon need to be overhauled. For that, Fowler has his eye on what appears to be the next big thing: digital signage. Large plasma or LCD screens are still a rare sight in most stores, but analysts predict they soon will be as ubiquitous—if not quite as intrusive—as the talking screens in the Steven Spielberg movie "Minority Report."

The reasons, says Bill Collins, a Cincinnati-based analyst with Instrumental Media Group, are threefold: the cost of the technology, particularly the screens and bandwidth, has come down to the point where it is now affordable for most retailers; Internet technologies have made it possible to deliver unique content down to an individual screen; and advertisers have caught on to the fact that they can, with TV-quality images, reach customers right where they make their buying decisions.

Borders, for example, can show advertisements for Harry Potter in the children's section of its bookstores and Dr. Phil in the self-help section. At supermarkets, Collins says advertisers will be able to tailor messages to individual locations and times of day, such as ads to senior citizens in the mornings.

Along the Georgia pine-lined road that leads to the headquarters for Convergent Media in Alpharetta, the industry's hopes for this market are loud and clear. The first feature to catch the eye is a giant nine-meter dish surrounded by phalanx of smaller satellite dishes for transmitting and receiving signals. Then there's the entrance to the building itself, formed by curved silver beams in the shape of a flying saucer.

Inside, Convergent has built a network-control room, which looks somewhat like NASA's space-shuttle-control center, to manage and monitor what it believes soon will be thousands of digital-signage screens across the country. It has already contracted with Borders, and while it could not release any names, is running pilot programs for two national grocery chains and three banks. From this location, Convergent can create, deliver and manage content right down to an individual screen assigned its own Internet Protocol address.

Convergent is far from alone in chasing this market. Competitors include Premier Retail Networks, which runs the Wal-Mart television network; Digi-Ad, which is behind the Hudson's Bay initiative; and the traditional large advertising agencies. However, Convergent hopes its experience in running in-store television networks for companies like Advance will give it a leg up. "We still don't know how big a market this could be," says Rick Hutcheson, Convergent's vice president of marketing. "Because once you create the infrastructure for digital signage, all kinds of things become possible."

Advance's Fowler agrees. Last year, the company's in-store computer-based sales systems were hit by a virus, temporarily paralyzing operations. Advance used the television network to give employees step-by-step instructions on how to debug the systems. "It saved us all kinds of time and effort, but we never would have imagined it could be used in that way," he says.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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