A talking shopping trolley that stops in particular aisles and points out special promotions and new products could be the ultimate in-store accessory for busy consumers.

How about a system that lets customers order products by firing a laser gun at goods in a window display even when a store is closed? Or, for the more sophisticated consumer, a point of sale unit that uses advanced electronics to demonstrate how particular meals will smell once cooked.

These were highlights of the Shopping Tomorrow sideshow held at the international retail services event EuroShop 99 in Dusseldorf in February. Many of the 97,000 representatives who attended the event from the world’s retail, shop-fitting and merchandising industry expect the store environment of the future to be a sea of sensual, visual and vocal point of sale displays.

Electronic point of sale has significant advantages over traditional print-based products such as posters, price labelling, in-store newsletters or on-pack offers when it comes to addressing the consumer.

In fact, technology is already there for brand managers to place electronic and multimedia systems in-store to communicate promotions and changes in brand imagery. It can also be used to control prices from a central source away from the retail outlet.

In reality it could be years before the majority of retailers are ready to embrace many ideas being developed.

Not only must stores justify the investment but, after years of influencing the distribution of print point of sale, must also reassure themselves that they are not handing too much merchandising power to brands.

Jeremy Williams, client services director at Aspen Specialist Media, understands the retailers’ concerns and says it is in everyone’s interest to make sure electronic point of sale works for the shop, the client and the consumer, and that it is not a case of new technology trying to infiltrate a new area.

“Some retailers find the whole idea difficult to accept but realise they must find a way to cut down on the “cardboard city” of print point of sale that is choking their stores and turning off the consumer,” he says.

The most likely scenario is that electronic options will simply exist alongside print, and the companies developing the technology are realising they must develop systems that enhance print rather than supersede it.

For instance, the cost involved in replacing on-shelf print labelling with electronic alternatives that alert consumers to promotions and which are linked to price management systems would be massive.

One example of paper and electronic point of sales systems working together is the Catalina Marketing Network which uses scanners and printers situated at every checkout. These are connected to in-store computers and the software can be adapted for different promotions. The scanners monitor which items a consumer purchases and print incentives electronically.

Catalina has run three campaigns with Somerfield this year. The most recent was a Mother’s Day promotion with Cadbury Schweppes. Print point of sale, including window posters and shelf displays, informed consumers that prizes were available and the electronic checkout system randomly selected the awards, including 25 top prizes of a day of pampering for mum at a beauty salon.

Introducing electronic point of sale alongside proven print methods allows stores to gauge the response of consumers to the new technology. Somerfield’s marketing manager Abigail Rogers says mixing electronic and print point of sale was a success because the vouchers went straight into the customer’s hand.

“We do not have to wait for them to pick up leaflets situated around the store to enter the promotion. As the campaign was an instant win, it encouraged participants to try products for the first time, such as the new Marble bar,” she says.

The next step for many retailers could be more in-store television-based displays that can be used for advertising, in-store messaging and for promoting up-to-the-minute special offers.

Aspen Specialist Media developed DRTV for the Post Office 15 years ago and the service is now available in 450 main outlets. Brands pay around 16,500 for a 30-second ad which reaches an estimated 24m customers over a four-week period.

Williams says the repeat advertising booking rate is close to 65 per cent and clients include Barclaycard, Bupa and the Inland Revenue. The post office environment is unique in the way customers wait to be served and the screens are sited near the queuing area.

“The service was designed for this environment and the information is useful and entertaining. It would not work if brands simply transferred their terrestrial television advertising to DRTV,” he says.

A number of companies are developing in-store plasma screen systems that are satellite linked or use pre-programmed chips to loop graphics and text. They can also be used to adapt point of sale messages for different times of the day. Stores could, for instance, promote wines and spirits in the evening by showing infomercials about products from a certain region and advertising a related special offer.

Plasma screens are already popular in the US for this type of marketing and for price management. McDonald’s, for example, uses a satellite system to broadcast a morning and evening menu and pricing information to its stores across the country.

The main obstacles to the growth of screens in the UK appears to be the cost of installing them, the expense involved in producing the message, controversy over where they should be sited in-store and a debate over whether they should include sound, which could irritate consumers and staff.

Andrew Roberts, managing director of Clarke Hooper Consulting, is negotiating with a number of UK supermarket chains about situating screens near the entrance. “We can offer single or multiple retailers a real-time satellite broadcast system for promotion and information purposes. This technology may diminish the use of print point of sale but will not replace it,” he says.

Video rental firm Blockbuster is currently researching the effect its in-store Channel B television channel is having on its music andvideo business. Channel B is a two-hour tape of reviews and promotions which includes third-party advertising from brands such as Coca-Cola. For the last nine months it has also included music videos that are shown every 11 minutes.

“Blockbuster is about visual entertainment and it would detract from the atmosphere of our stores if there was silence. But electronic point of sale must be treated with care to ensure the screens we have on the main rental walls do not turn into virtual wallpaper,” says marketing manager Piers Skinner.

“Customers spend an average 11 minutes in our stores and most come in knowing exactly what they want to hire. The screens must get the message across and help to keep people in the store long enough for them to be exposed to that message.”

The screens complement Blockbusters’ print-based point of sale including its magazine The Scene which is given away in-store to 600,000 customers a month.

Much of the television-based point of sale technology targeting retailers has already been used for a number of years by pubs and restaurants, who have the distinct advantage of knowing their customers will remain in one place for some time.

BSkyB is about to launch a dedicated digital channel for the licensing trade which will enable drinks brands to advertise directly into pubs that have installed Sky equipment. Steve Gumbrell, marketing director of promotions company Purchasepoint, is talking to BSkyB on behalf of its client Anheuser-Busch, whose brands include Budweiser.

“These electronic point of sale methods mean we can be sure our promotional messages will appear, which is something we can never be certain about when printed material is sent to individual pubs,” he says.

One development that could take the pub trade by storm is a themed bar concept based on the London Stock Exchange. The first Beer Exchange Pub Company opened in Manchester in 1997. It uses screens located around the bar area to display the “trading” prices of drinks. If there is a fall in demand for a particular drink the price crashes and drinkers can buy the product for a knock-down price until demand, and the price, picks up again, mimicking the rise and fall of share prices. The company will open in London in the next few weeks and hopes to expand into 60 sites over the next two years.

The hospitality sector was also one of the pioneers of interactive electronic point of sale touch-screen systems for promoting products. One developer, the Xn Corporation, is looking to expand the idea into retail. Its Xn 500 series connects screens through a normal PC and has a marketing point of sale multimedia facility that can link the screens to brand promotions, own-label advertising or store information.

Yet introducing an interactive element to any point of sale display can be tricky because it will not work if it is perceived by consumers as complicated or time consuming.

Neil Halford, director of point of purchase designer and producer Artform, is considering incorporating an interactive element into the product display systems it manufacturers for L’Oreal. It may install a system whereby consumers choosing, say, a new mascara can scan the barcode and be told through a screen which skin tone the product is most suitable.

“Consumers want information quickly. Simplicity is the key,” he says.

The fact that many of the electronic point of sale options being marketed are not particularly straight forward or cost effective means print will continue to dominate the store environment in the medium term. It seems the talking trolley will just have to wait.

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