The dilemma of the digital in-store marketing industry

confusion The Digital In-Store Marketing industry is confronted with a dizzying array of trade orgs, websites, and events to support.  What’s a well intentioned marketer to do?

An old boxing axiom starts with the advice “You gotta have a good nickname.”    But my own profession struggles to find a universally recognized label.  The lack of a universally understanding manifests itself in a variety of challenges.

My work is at the interesting intersection of a two industries, In-Store Marketing and Digital Marketing.  Both industries are the logical evolutions of earlier disciplines, and both suffer from a confusing variety of labels.  It  makes it all the more difficult to define what happens when the two industries converge.

When Pierre Lorillard put the first Cigar Store Indian in front of his tobacco store in 1760, the point of purchase industry was born.  Over the next 250 years, permeations of this industry have labeled themselves “Point of Purchase”, “Retail Display”, “Store Fixtures”, “Visual Merchandising”, “Retail Design”, and many others.   And as you might expect, the practitioners of each of these disciplines make important (and accurate) distinctions between these various labels, but these distinctions are often lost on the rest of the world.  Today “In-Store Marketing” and “Shopper Marketing” are in vogue. 

Similarly, when the Florsheim Shoe Company first put touch screen kiosks in it’s stores in 1980, the retail kiosk industry was born.  This industry has used numerous labels including  “Interactive Kiosks”, “Self-Service Technology”, “Digital Signage”, and “Interactive Merchandising.”

The challenge lies when trying to describe the use of digital customer facing technologies for in-store use.  Digital Signage is one common label, but it doesn’t imply interactivity and has many use cases outside of retail stores.  Interactive Merchandising is used by some, but it is also used by marketers who primary sell products over the web.  Digital Out of Home (which has the cool Homer Simpson sounding” acronym “DOOH”) includes a variety of non-retail use cases such as out door advertising.

So for lack of a better label, I’m going with “Digital In-Store Marketing” (DISM).  Why does the label mater?

Because our industry also struggles with the tools to develop standards, best practices, establish credibility with end users, and all the other things that come with being a well established professional discipline.

The In-Store Marketing Institute is a trade organization that hosts a web portal, publication, and trade show.  They occasionally attempt to have a section of their trade show dedicated to “Digital” and recruit “Digital” members.   POPAI is a well regarding non-profit trade org for “Marketing at Retail”.  They have created a “Digital Signage” workgroup, and even published a glossary and some proposed industry standards.  POPAI, along with several other industries including the Association for Retail Environments / ARE (formerly the National Association of Store Fixtures / NASF), hosts the GlobalShop trade show which has a dedicated area for digital.  The Self Service and Kiosk association has the Kioskcom trade show.  The Digital Signgae Association (until recently) hosted the Digital Signage Expo (DSE).  Several other industries including Infocomm, NAB, and NRF make some efforts to cover some aspects of the “Digital In-Store Marketing” industry.  Several of these players are for profit event and/or publishing companies that mainly want to make money hosting Trade Shows and publishing magazines, and they support the associations as a means to that end.  Some of these host multiple events every year.

This year the Digital Signage Association declared itself a non-profit (effectively putting it at odds with ExpoNation, host of Digital Signage Expo).  Instead of bidding to continue hosting a DSA show, ExpoNation promptly formed a new organization “Digital Signage Federation” to host DSE, and the DSA will now launch yet another trade show, or affiliate itself with one of the many other shows listed above. UPDATE: Paragraph edited to reflect a error pointed out by the Digital Signage Federation

To market your “Digital In-Store Marketing” services, you could spend all of your time exhibiting at all these shows.  Buy ads in all the publications.  And don’t forget to buy ads on many of the stand alone websites, such as DailyDooh.  You might also focus on some specific retail verticals and participate in their shows/pubs/events such as Grocery, Consumer Electronics, Chain Stores, etc…

If you were a retailer or brand charged with learning more about using digital technology in stores, which of these resources would you find and use?  What if you were a VAR, Designer, Influencer, etc… that wanted to develop an offering for use in-store? 

If you were a Digital Signgae software company and decided to exhibit at GlobalShop, you might meet some brands and retailers but not many Out of Home Advertisers or Hospitality/Event Venues.  If you exhibited at Infocomm you might meet potential integrators but not many end-users.  If you exhibited at FMI you might meet some grocery retailers, but mostly not ones charged with exploring digital technologies for in-store.

I got to meet Nikki Baird from RSR at Globalshop this year.  She did a terrific job of covering the show via Twitter, and when she got home she wrote an article “Why GlobalShop is Not DSE, But Should Be”.  She didn’t get to attend DSE this year, and so hoped to meet some vendors at GlobalShop, but when she got there she was disappointed with the lack of digital presence.

Personally and selfishly, I’d love to see one of the shows most focused on retail applications become the definitive resource for brands and retailers interested in using Digital In-Store Marketing.  Because DSE was the show getting the most traction and the DSA is now looking for a new host, POPAI and In-Store Marketing Institute should both be reaching out to the DSA right now.  But if DSA aligned with one of those, they will still have a gap in coverage for all the non-retail use cases for their solutions.  I suspect that DSA will align with Infocomm, which will serve some of the other use-cases well but doesn’t have much exposure to retailers or brands.

The result is that Digital In-Store Marketing is likely to continue to be a confusing and fragmented industry.  As a principal of a firm that earns over $100M/year providing services to retailers and brands, I am heavily solicited by all these marketing opportunities.

Frankly, all this Trade Show posturing is probably rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Trade Shows are a dying marketing tool (at least the kind that encourage exhibitors to fund events by bringing extravagant and expensive trade show displays).  The internet has become a far more cost effective tool for communicating with your customer base than the traditional annual shows.  This evolution has probably been hurried along by the global recession which has affected trade show budgets for exhibitors and travel budgets for attendees across the board.  As exhibitors continue to cut back, I hope some new model emerges.  I find it enormously beneficial to escape the hustle of my day to day job and have a chance to rub elbows with all the smart peers in my industry.  Perhaps we not only need some major consolidation of events, but that we also need to see the events migrate from trade exhibits to peer conferences.

I’d love to hear you’re thoughts.


  1. Great article….. Why not leverage new web portals whereby these exhibitors/companies can rather, for free, profile their business and their various solutions, share best practice execution and post projects all in their own time. Brands and interested retailers can then access these various services and resources directly online instead of hauling around the world to these conferences at huge cost….. Check out a new site called as a thought starter….

  2. Len Horridge says:

    Like the article, good thoght-provoking stuff. I kind of agree about exhibitions but, remember, people still like getting out into the world and meeting other people and exhibitions still provide this opportunity. Forecasters have predicted the demise of real shopping for years yet try getting parked in any town on a Staurday afternoon! Exhibitions are a dying breed but, as long as people like to meet other people, the best will survive, though they may not make much money!!

  3. For the record, your remarks regarding the Digital Signage Expo (DSE)and its relationship to the Digital Signage Association (DSA)are totally wrong and do a disservice to both organizations and their respective goals. The DSA was originated and funded by Networld Alliance of Louisville, KY, which also publishes the Web site. The DSE is an independent trade show produced by ExpoNation of Atlanta, which also publishes the Web site. Without getting into the politics of the situation, Digital Signage Expo has never been the Digital Signage Association’s show, nor has DSE been a member of DSA. Most recently, Digital Signage Expo did agree to fund a new, not-for-profit industry association called the Digital Signage Federation. Information on the why and wherefore of this organization is available

  4. Thanks Richard. I fixed my misunderstanding about Expo Nations original relationship with DSA.

    As an aside… It’s not my intention to to a disservice to anyone, and I’m happy to correct any mistakes.

    I’m a long time customer of ExpoNation, having a booth at your first several DSE shows. If I’m confused about your relationship with the most popular trade organization in your space, you might consider that you haven’t educated your customers well enough.

    Although you don’t state your affiliation, I assume you are the Richard Lebovitz who is the Editorial Director for the Digital Signage Expo.



  5. Your article touches on something I deal with constantly. I have my own digital signage business that provides digital in-store signage to small businesses. Those in the industry all know and understand what digital signage means and what it is. However you use that same label to describe what you do to a retail business owner and they will have no idea what you are talking about.

    I came across your article because I am trying to come up with a better label that everyone understands without having to site actual examples. I have tried digital billboards, in-store digital advertising, digital display marketing and even digital in-store marketing. And as much as these are better at describing what it is I do, I think the issue lies in the fact that this is such a new technology as it relates to small businesses.

    • The labels are a challenge. I know people in the “Digital Signage” industry don’t want to hear it, but at this point “Digital Signage” probably has a negative context amongst retailers… i.e. “Tech guys have been telling me for 20+ years that I need digital signage in my store, but it’s never caught on, and now I can just use the shoppers mobile phone.” This has been a problem that the “Kiosk” industry has faced even more severely.

      The irony is that the retailer saying that, probably has half a dozen successful implementations of digital signage in their store,they just call them something else… i.e “Vendor Provided Display”

      The other problem is that “Digital Signage” is a lot broader than retail (Bus Stops, Menu Boards, etc…).

      So I tend to favor labels like “Digital In-Store” or “In-Store Digital”. All good retailers are creating great new digital experiences for their web-sites, social networks, etc.. and asking how to leverage those experience in store.

      At my firm, Razorfish, we have an entire practice group focused just on getting finding the best ways for those digital experiences to manifest themselves in the store.

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