E-Sign of the Times

Mighty morphin' internet billboards are coming to a mall near you.

Mighty morphin internet billboards are coming to a mall near you.

I-Open, a Pennsylvania company, has developed a technology that allows retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nine West to use the Internet to deliver precisely targeted messages to consumers via high-definition, flat-screen displays at their retail stores. The stores control the ads via desktop computers. I-Opens signs are connected to the Net via broadband connections, allowing the retailer to update images and ad campaigns in real-time.

"The basic premise of i-Open is better, smarter point-of-purchase advertising," said Ian Williams, the companys vice president of marketing. "We have a strong belief there is a huge opportunity in the retail industry for point-of-purchase advertising that is changeable and easily updated."

With the i-Open system, retailers can quickly design, schedule, upload and exchange content. Messages can be customized by locale, time of day and target demographics, and can be updated weekly, daily or even hourly, Williams said.

The system allows retailers to electronically and instantaneously change point-of-sale sign displays, synchronizing prices with those at the cash register.

I-Open offers retailers an application service provider model, which the Nine West shoe store chain uses. I-Open provides the software, expertise and creative services for a fee, and Nine West has control over which ads are displayed. The company also offers its services on a per-ad campaign model, such as its deal with Saks.

Saks used the i-Open solution to deploy multimedia promotions in its flagship New York City store during "Fashion Week" Feb. 7 through Feb. 19. With a network of high-resolution screens in store windows and on the main floor, Saks displayed up-to-the-minute fashion show footage and promoted its new "Live a Little" marketing campaign with multimedia content.

Last month, i-Open announced a partnership with Adshel Mall Communications Network, Clear Channel Communications mall division, to install i-Opens technology in about 50 shopping malls around the country. The first installation will be later this year in California, Williams said.

"This technology gives our advertisers the flexibility to run cost-effective weekly or daily promotions side-by-side with their brand-oriented advertisements," said Doug Watts, president of Adshel Mall. "Its a perfect solution for retailers trying to increase the productivity of their ad budgets."

A report prepared by Envirosell, an independent research company, indicated that shoppers spent 5 percent more time in stores with dynamic bulletin boards. Those stores experienced a 10 percent increase in sales, and purchases of certain impulse items increased 100 percent.

Static indoor signs typically cost $2 to $20 per square foot; at the high end, prices for liquid crystal display screens can reach roughly $1,000 per square foot.

"This is a new and powerful marketing tool, integrating features of the Internet site and the broadcast ad into dramatically enhanced and targeted point-of-sale and out of home advertising," said David Williamson, director of visual communications technologies consulting service at Cap Ventures, a Norwell, Mass.-based market research firm.

I-Open is attacking a large market. The International Sign Association, an industry trade group, puts annual sales of on-premises signs at $5.4 billion per year.