Content is Not King

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Content is Not King

By David Keene, Executive Editor

As a well-known and unabashed promoter of "digital signage" in retail over the years–not the technology-for-technology's-sake kind, but a firm believer in the new medium as a key part of a rising tide that will lift all retail boats–I found a recent presentation by the world's top retailer both intriguing and sobering.

At the Digital Signage Expo held February 27-38 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a special presentation was given by Mike Hiatt, Director In-Store Media Networks, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Hiatt spoke to a breakfast meeting on "The Past, Present & Future of the Nation's Leading Retail Media Network."

We're all familiar with the basic economics of the Wal-Mart phenomenon. Wal-Mart accounts for 6% of Retail and Food sales in the U.S. 90 % of the U.S. population lives within fifteen miles of a Wal-Mart (and there is a trend toward more urban stores; most of U.S. is urban, and already, 65% of Wal-marts are urban/suburban).

80% of the U.S. population shops at Wal-Mart. 140 million people per week shop there, with 100 million transactions per week. (An interesting and perplexing sidebar: more than 10% of Wal-Mart "shoppers" don't buy anything when they visit the store; it is, for this group, ostensibly, a social scene, like mall-crawling. Turn just a some of these into buyers and you've created a sales lift that's greater than the GNP of many countries. )

Using GRP as a yardstick, Wal-Mart TV is the fifth largest TV network in the country.

Hiatt explained that Wal-Mart just concluded a pilot study with PRN, its in-store TV supplier, on what would constitute a more robust "Future Network." He ran through a familiar list of to-do and shopping list items that we would all now expect from a third-gen network, with some combination of better and more trackable sales lift, growth in category sales, day-parting, messaging physically closer to the product, etc.

Wal-Mart execs are famously not sentimental, and Hiatt wound up his presentation with some sobering food for thought. "Content is Not King" he said, blasphemy to every digital signage purveyor who has been touting the medium for the past five years. When a technology matures, content becomes king, he explained, and cited how print, and traditional TV have matured to the point where content is the only thing that counts there. But until that happens in retail, Hiatt holds, other issues–content management, metrics, hardware issues, and inventory management, and other issues–will hold sway.

Hiatt delved into a variety of issues in contention in each of those categories. But one detail that caught my attention was in the sustainability category–kind of. Hiatt said that as part of the Wal-Mart TV pilot study last fall, his number-crunchers determined that by using LCD flat panels instead of plasma panels, there would be a savings of electricity to the tune of $4M annually. Is that math part of a sustainability initiative? Or is it just Wal-Mart being Wal-Mart, squeezing economies of scale out of every retail and distribution nook and cranny. Does it matter? The fact is, at-retail is and will always be about the mechanics of getting a lot of stuff into a lot places, all at once. And most of that is about the logistics of shipping, of distribution channels, of gas prices, and electricity, and the politics of retail vs CPGs vs Agencies.

Yes, we all like to think of ourselves as creative geniuses that are propelling at-retail into a new era. But remember that at the end of the day, we're all accountable to the customer, on both ends of the equation.

The next time I go into a Wal-Mart, I might, for the first time ever, actually buy something, and not just look at those screens.

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