UNITED PILOTS DIGITAL SCREENS

COLLEYVILLE, Texas -- A first-time, multi-vendor test of digital marketing screens at a Market Street store here, intended to increase sales of center-store products, has thus far elicited a positive reaction from shoppers.The four screens, installed before Christmas for a six-month pilot, "add energy to the store that might not have been there," said Dan Sanders, chief marketing officer for 46-unit

COLLEYVILLE, Texas -- A first-time, multi-vendor test of digital marketing screens at a Market Street store here, intended to increase sales of center-store products, has thus far elicited a positive reaction from shoppers.

The four screens, installed before Christmas for a six-month pilot, "add energy to the store that might not have been there," said Dan Sanders, chief marketing officer for 46-unit United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, which operates four upscale stores under the Market Street banner, with a fifth to open in McKinney, Texas, on March 3. "Our surveys indicate customers are reacting positively. There are not so many screens that it's a nuisance."

At the 72,000-square-foot Market Street store here, a screen, 61 inches in diameter, is located at the entrance; a second, similar screen is situated near the sit-down coffee shop. Two other screens, both 16 feet by nine feet, are located in the produce department. Both still and moving images are displayed on all screens.

The emphasis of the signs is on center-store promotions, initially for private-label products. "We don't have a hard time getting people to shop the fresh departments," said Sanders. "But the center store is shrinking despite the influx of specialty items. So, the challenge is to promote the center store, and that's the benchmark we're using for success." However, the screens are also being used to promote other aspects of the store, including prepared foods and other perishables, cross merchandising, an upstairs cooking school and community events.

"Some people think this is just putting print ads on screens," said Barry Wise, president, Wise Retail Consultants, Flower Mound, Texas, who works with Epson and Sweda. "But this is catching shoppers' attention, creating a call to action, and improving how they feel about the retailer."

The Market Street digital marketing pilot represents the first such effort by the affiliated vendors: Epson America, Long Beach, Calif., which provided the screens and PC-based PowerLite projectors; DS Arts, Dallas, screen design; Sweda (formerly Innovax), content-management SwedaMedia software; and Adplex.Rhodes, Houston, message creation. United, which controls the content of all marketing messages, also uses Sweda for its point-of-sale software platform.

The screens, designed to blend into store decor, are mounted on polls hanging from the ceiling. Screen projectors are also mounted from the ceiling "in inconspicuous places," said Sanders. Content, in the form of flash and movie images, is wirelessly transmitted to projectors. The system can also handle jpeg and bmp files.

United is contributing its "time and venue" for the pilot, while Sweda and Epson are incurring hardware and software costs, said Sanders. The projectors cost between $4,000 and $12,000, said Epson.

The SwedaMedia Web-based software stores, schedules, distributes and tracks messages; it allows a retailer to manage digital content from a central location, and distribute it over the Internet to various channels within a store, varying the content by store. The system, noted Sanders, ties into United's focus on localized merchandising. "Our goal is to do the best job customizing stores to specific neighborhoods," he said. "This allows us to transmit relevant, customized digital images to specific stores and places in a store. And we can do it from a centralized location in an automated way without adding staff."

The Sweda application is currently running at its Dallas headquarters, but in full deployment would run at United's corporate headquarters in Lubbock, Texas. Shaw's Supermarkets, West Bridgewater, Mass., is piloting a Sweda POS platform that includes an application for presenting ads at the POS.

"It's fascinating to me that digital technology allows us as retailers to craft selling propositions unique to specific stores and to change messages quickly in ways we never could before," Sanders continued. "This software is so specific that we can have a different message at the front end from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8p.m., and a different message at produce during each of those times. It allows us to market with a scalpel rather than a chainsaw."

The software can also be linked to POS movement, tracking the lift in sales that may occur for a product while it is marketed on the screens. United has not yet used this capability, said Sanders, though he is "optimistic" that the screens have boosted sales.

United is also looking at adding audio to the pilot in the form of "audio spotlight" technology that focuses a "beam of sound, like a flashlight" to minimize noise in the store, Sanders said.

For its pilot, United has chosen to maintain control of all messaging to the screens rather than seek paid advertising from product vendors, Sanders noted, though he did not rule out vendor support in the future. "We're featuring products we choose to feature," he said. "We're not treating this as a way to capture ad dollars." United, he added, is very concerned that content is developed "in a world-class fashion and not just thrown on the screen."

United unveiled its Market Street format in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1997 as an upscale, perishables-oriented format. United also operates stores under its own banner and under United Supermercado, a Hispanic-focused format.