Guest Post: Matt Downey, Freshwater Digital
A couple of years ago my company started researching and contacting e-paper (or ESL manufacturers, as they’re commonly referred to) to learn more about the requirements, capabilities, and costs of digital shelf tags. We’re a digital signage solutions company to the core, but this new technology intrigued us.
Living in the U.S., I had seen the early iterations of digital shelf tags in the shoe department at Kohl’s, but these were LCD tags, and didn’t have the capabilities of e-ink tags.
I was amazed at how difficult it was to get a return call or e-mail from any of the eight or so companies that we contacted. When we did get a return call, the information was spotty and nearly impossible to figure out. There seemed to be no straight answers on how they connect, what equipment was required to operate, how difficult they were to program, and God forbid, how much they cost.
What we did get is: “The batteries last a really long time,” “the costs are coming down every year” and “we’ll send you some as soon as they are available in the US … but you’ll have to order 1,000”.
Today, thankfully, we have broken through the information barrier, and after hundreds of conversations with six or seven tag manufacturers, we have been able to confidently discuss capabilities, requirements, applications, and yes, prices. It wasn’t easy, and it turns out that everyone does digital tags a bit differently.
First, all suppliers that we have found are international, usually based in the far east or Europe. This makes communication challenging in itself.
Second, there isn’t a standard tag size – yet. Some companies offer a 4.3”, others offer a 4.2”. Some companies offer 1 color (actually called two color – black and white), and some offer three (add a red or yellow). There are a few that are working with full color, but that is a separate article in itself.
The way the tags are updated is just as variable. Costs are all over the board. Additional features and capabilities, like API integration, flashing LED lights and frame shape and colors are different between all manufacturers.
Another unique challenge we faced, as we planned our entry into digital tags, was how most manufacturers we found require an exclusivity clause. One of the pillars of our company is that we are hardware and software agnostic. That means we don’t manufacture or work with only one panel manufacturer, CMS, or hardware company. When I founded the company, I wanted to be an unbiased voice for customers who wanted the best solution for their needs. To this day, I strongly believe that no single hardware or software can be the best fit for every client.
So, it was a bit unsettling that, in order to be able to sell digital tags, we had to hang our hat with a single company. That triggered another round of research and discussions. We sought out to determine who had the broadest product line. Who had the most reliable tags? Who had the best warranty? Who had the best support? Who had the best platform that will allow customization, ease of use and potential for integration with API’s and even clients’ digital signage networks? Who was the best at returning our calls? Who did we think will be around in one, five, or 10 years?
After many, many calls, e-mails, and in-person meetings, we found a partner in France who addressed all those questions, and had a vision for the future.
We think all that upfront research paid off – as we’re into it now, adding an average of one new client per day.
What we’re hearing from new customers is that they ran into the same challenges we did a couple of years ago. They’ve struggled to connect with vendors, or get the kinds of details – like costs – they needed. It’s fun now to talk to clients who are interested in purchasing a dozen tags to put in a new car showroom, or others that want 50,000 tags for a warehouse.
That warehouse deal is interesting not just because of the volume. Our company thinks the digital tag opportunity is much larger than just retail shelf tags. While there is a huge opportunity in the US for digital shelf tags, we are introducing digital tags to non-retail industries as well.
Once you start thinking about the potential, the list is endless. Consider education (think about daily messaging and emergency alert messaging in every classroom), hospitality (let’s replace the brass room numbers with customizable digital tags), residential (retirement homes, apartments, etc.), warehouse and distribution, commercial buildings (office and conference room tags), healthcare, transportation, museums, government, military, and the list goes on.
So yes, “traditional” digital signage is still an incredibly important and growing opportunity for companies small and large. The demand and need for large, full motion video screens is incredible. The opportunities are endless, and it is still our passion. But we see digital tags as an incredible compliment to a digital signage network, providing a different type of information in a slightly different way.