This week, Dave Haynes over at Sixteen:Nine has uncovered two examples of tiny shelf-edge screens advertising toothpaste. He assesses one of them as not-so-good and one as pretty darn good. I would tend to agree with Dave’s assessments, especially at the execution level, but the small devices brought me back to the 90’s and made me realize that they may both have to be graded incomplete.

As a young retail consultant at Touche Ross in the late 80’s, I was involved in two engagements to measure the effectiveness and ROI of a new technology that was going to revolutionize price management in grocery stores: the electronic shelf label, or ESL. These devices, which were only slightly larger in form factor than the devices that Dave reviewed, were going to allow retailers to comply with shelf pricing laws, mitigate the printing and labor costs of applying new labels when prices and products changed, and allow retailers to change prices dynamically with near-instant compliance at the shelf edge.

The pioneer in the field was a Toronto-based company called Telepanel, which is now owned by NRT Technology Corp. I was involved in a study for Telepanel and later in one for a competing offering called PriceLink, now long gone. The major challenges for this concept in the late 90’s were form factor, power, connectivity and of course price. One pesky issue was always protecting ESLs on the lower shelves from the inquiring minds and hands of 3 year olds, and the unsteady shopping carts of harried shoppers. As you can imagine, the ability to address most of these issues has improved in the past 20 years.  Battery technology, device engineering and chip prices have all gone in the right direction. In the 90’s, the devices depended upon something called spread spectrum technology to sync up with the price files at the front end. At the time, it required what would today be looked at as a virtual broadcast station to cover a store, but it worked. Spread spectrum is apparently still an option, but according to the NRT site, they also offer to utilize the “store’s existing radio frequency network” as an option. I am pretty sure that does not mean WiFi, but the RF technology long used for shelf edge ordering and more in grocery.  Having 10,000 nodes on a WiFi network may present issues, but I am guessing that they are solvable. Here we are twenty years later, and ESLs have survived, yet they are still not pervasive. Hmmm… what might be missing?

Since TCO and ROI have always been the alphabet soup barrier to ESL penetration, perhaps a marriage with DOOH would provide the impetus needed to get to the next level. Even using a combination of electronic ink technology and tiny displays may increase appeal and visibility. The Foustland blog site posted a piece in November that has nice pics of both traditional ESLs and e-paper style labels they came across. Take a peek. Now just take it one step further and marry e-paper and small form LCD or OLED for shopper-initiated promotions, and you get the drift. If just 50 ESLs in a grocery were capable of delivering a digital message in addition to the normal pricing information, it could provide a clearer path to ROI for the whole system. The issue of reliable power to the shelf may still need work, but the thought of measurable ad clicks at the shelf combined with POS data would be of great interest to retailers and brands.

As always, the value of point solutions increase exponentially when they are integrated with other applications. It is probably true at the micro level of ESL, and certainly true at the macro level of large format digital signage. At this stage of digital signage development, integration points may be of equal or greater value than feature points.