Creativity in today's shelf programs means more than tear-off pads.Brand marketers are excited about several new programs that add a level of technical sophistication to the shelf. They range from several types of coupon dispensers to devices that play recorded messages triggered by a shopper's approaching body heat.Arguably the most futuristic of these are the heat-sensing devices, which can detect

Creativity in today's shelf programs means more than tear-off pads.

Brand marketers are excited about several new programs that add a level of technical sophistication to the shelf. They range from several types of coupon dispensers to devices that play recorded messages triggered by a shopper's approaching body heat.

Arguably the most futuristic of these are the heat-sensing devices, which can detect a potential customer's presence near a given shelf or display area and then play a prerecorded 15- to 30-second greeting inviting the customer to try the product.

Last summer, Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, experimented with heat-sensor technology for the first time. In a test of two new flavors of Crest toothpaste, 10 supermarket and pharmacy chains in three Southern states installed MicroTalk shelf-audio units made by Telestar Interactive Corp, also of Cincinnati.

"In terms of sell-through and technological performance, the test was successful," said a P&G official.

Whether high-tech or low-tech, shelf-talkers seem here to stay. In a recent study done by the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute, 66% of supermarket managers and 64% of executives polled predicted their use of shelf programs would increase in the future.

Trade observers say this dovetails with the increase in impulse buying. According to POPAI, two-thirds of purchase decisions made by supermarket shoppers are made in-store.

What's more, POPAI found that the average customer shops with a list less than one-third of the time -- and that ratio is steadily declining.

With these facts in mind, Telestar President Mike Slattery is positioning MicroTalk as a device that allows marketers the flexibility of demographically targeted, effective but nonintrusive campaigns.

"Obviously, the introduction of voice at the shelf allows national manufacturers and store brands alike to highlight their features and benefits, while tying into national promotions, and working in conjunction with radio and print campaigns," Slattery said.

But thanks to technology, subtle advances can be realized.

A big one popular with marketers, according to Slattery, is vocal configurability -- the ability of the sensor-activated "voice" to "speak" in the gender and language of the target shopper for the individual category being touted.

"It's not generic," Slattery pointed out. "If, for example, you are advertising diapers at Kroger, the MicroTalk on that aisle could play a greeting in a young mother's voice."

In any in-store media, of course, one fear of marketers and supermarket managers is that too many sound and video messages in too small a period of space or time will produce that dreaded clutter. Too many high-tech bells and whistles can lead to shopper tune-out.

For marketers, deciding on the right balance between attention-getting messages and in-store message overload can be a sensitive proposition.

Acknowledging the perils of the clutter trap, Slattery says that in a 30,000-square-foot store, for example, only two to four devices are installed.

Two other traditional reservations brand marketers have about higher-tech shelf-talkers are that they can be relatively expensive, and direct results can be hard to quantify.

"I don't know if there is any true measure of effectiveness," said Mike Perry, director of media for Nabisco Biscuit Co., East Hanover, N.J. "Tear-off pads, on the other hand, provide a known measure of performance because you can tell how many have been ripped off."

Perry is willing to gamble on high-tech, but not without some price-related reservations. "High-tech works for us, but the big problem is price point," he said. "There is the initial capitalization cost, and then we have to drive a lot of volume [to pay for it]. The effectiveness gets tempered by cost."

Another key concern for brand marketers is flexibility -- for example, how quickly can shelf programs be updated to reflect special promotions or new pricing strategies?

One vendor with new shelf technology that addresses this need is Comark Technologies, Elk Grove Village, Ill. At the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention in Chicago earlier this month, the Comark Merchandising subsidiary introduced Promo$ign, which it describes as "a totally wireless promotional system that increases category profitability and builds store loyalty in a cost-effective manner."

In one current test, Taster's Choice is using the technology to tout 75 cents off the purchase when a second item of the same brand is bought.

"I have been in the promotion business 25 years, and have never seen such big changes in how brands are meeting their marketing needs," said Paul Willner, vice president of promotional marketing services at Comark. "Products are fighting for a finite number of shelf facings, so the key is to develop promotional features that will motivate the trade to put your displays at the shelf."

In Willner's mind, when it comes to higher-tech shelf products, necessity has been the mother of invention.

"One thing in America hasn't changed: Two-thirds of buying decisions are made at the shelf," he said. "Shelf-talkers are still a widely used type of in-store media. Marketers used to have a reluctance to submit too many coupons, because they were afraid the retailers would rip them off. But there has been a tremendous reversal toward more live coupons at the shelf."

Lots of paper coupons mean lots of labor-intensive, error-prone processing time, an irksome fact of life that programs such as Promo$ign try to prevent.

"Anytime you distribute paper coupons, you play the redemption game," Willner said. The solution: paperless coupons.

Currently in test by several marketers,the Promo$ign technology basically works like this:

The brand marketer establishes promotion specifications on its own computers.

The information is transmitted by modem to a Comark site which receives, maintains and transmits transaction-level information to be secured, validated and established for the chosen brand and selected stores.

The relevant data is sent from the site to the store by modem. At the store the data is captured by an in-store controller, where it is routed to the intended, shelf-mounted, liquid crystal display.

The store controller also handles processing and redemption functions in the following manner:

Each consumer purchase is monitored and checked for brand and promotional qualifications.

When detected, the promotion is applied to the purchase total at the cash register.

The register is instructed to print the manufacturer's offer on the receipt.

The purchase information is then sent to the processing site. The information is then added to a promotional-results data base, which is sent to the manufacturer and retailer upon request.

In the store, a subroutine can be added that can either cut off the promotion when a preassigned sales quota is reached, or enhance a price promotion in the event of low sales.

"If Maxwell House Coffee wants to move 200 units, but [the program] finds it isn't moving enough product, it can lower the value according to pre-established standards," added Willner.

Shelf promotions delivered by computer or activated by heat sensors are still so relatively new that their current use is sporadic at best. Indeed, several marketers contacted by Brand Marketing said they were only marginally aware of the new technologies.

Actmedia's Instant Coupon Machine, which the Norwalk, Conn.-based vendor claims is the most effective shelf program in use today, is currently in more than 4,200 supermarkets. The company has added three options: Aislevision, Aisledirect and Aisledirect Winklight.

Aislevision features brand visual, headline or "starburst" signs announcing coupon availability. Hung above the shelf in an aisle, Aisledirect displays a blown-up version of the coupon itself, along with a "coupon available in this aisle" announcement. Aisledirect Winklight adds a flashing light feature to the coupon availability sign.

"These features have allowed marketers to use oversized [visuals]. Because they want to stand out in the aisle, they tell us that it's appealing to them," said Wayne Locurto, Actmedia president and chief executive officer.

The oldest "traditional" shelf program in use today is Shelftalk, also from Actmedia. Shelf Take-One, an accompanying on-shelf promotional program for use in supermarkets, dispenses refunds, premium offers, sweepstakes forms and recipes. The dispenser is placed in front of each advertiser's brand, perpendicular to the shelf.

"At this point, they [high-tech shelf programs] are only an alternative," said Actmedia's Locurto. "Some companies are testing electronic couponing in small tests, but we have exclusive rights to the shelf in more than 10,000 supermarkets."