Florian Rotberg and Stefan Schieker of Munich’s Invidis Consulting have been active in the digital signage market since 2006, mainly focused on Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Their work spans everything from straight-up consulting for vendors and end-users to organizing and running industry conferences in Europe and globally.
That puts them in steady touch with a lot of people, and gives them a solid perspective on what’s going on and what’s changing.
One of the things Invidis has been doing in presentations is a regular look at the impacts and implications on vertical markets of COVID-19, and what that means for digital signage companies.
We talk about that in this new podcast, as well as dig into some suddenly red-hot marketplace requirements like sidewalk displays and access control technologies.
All right, Florian and Stefan and thanks for joining me. For those people who are not that familiar with Invidis, I would say more so in North America and certainly in Europe, could you explain what your company does?
Florian: Oh, yeah, thank you for having us by the way. Invidis Consulting, we founded the company in 2006, and we’re a Digital Signage consultancy strategy consultancy, and we support the industry as well as end users to create the right digital concepts. And besides our consulting work, which is a main work, we also organize conferences, we have a joint venture together with IEC, and we do our Digital Signage summit conferences around the world, the biggest one being here in Germany every summer, but we do it across the world. And maybe some of your listeners have already participated in them. I’m quite sure you know, part of Infocomm or at ISE or the standalone ones, and we also publish a German portal, similar to Sixteen:Nine, just in German, and we’re the leading Digital Signage portal in the German language market.
I don’t do anything in German. So you’ve got me there.
Florian: Well, we’re complementing each other.
That’s right. How are things looking for the summit in July? Is it still on at the moment?
Florian: It’s still on for the time being. But it’s a challenge, to be honest. We’re still waiting for the government because the government has a new regulation, which says that no events are no large events allowed until the end of August. But they haven’t defined what large means and we have 700 people attending. So, we’re currently in discussions with the government to understand where the limit is. But yeah, it’s pretty tough times for us, not for us for everyone on this planet, I assume. And this year, but we still hope to get an answer in the next couple of days.
Yeah, the whole conferences thing in general is, it’s just nightmarish and I know, and you know, we’ve discussed doing virtual work with AVIXA, during what would normally be Infocomm week, but I think everybody right now is just kind of dabbling with how does this work and look going forward?
Florian: It’s difficult to be honest, because we also know now after six weeks – we are six weeks in lockdown now in Europe over here. You also get sick of video conferences and webcasts, day and night, so people are quite eager to meet in person again, and to do business. Because as great as technology is, it’s always, you know, it’s not the most efficient way. I mean, we’re busy all day more busy than ever, but it’s not sufficient, you know, because you finish a meeting and then usually you have to hop on a plane and it’s much easier to say, okay, how do we continue and if you ever been one, she’ll say, oh, let’s schedule another meeting and continue the discussion so far, so that’s a lot of work and not only for us, but I guess for the whole industry. So we are all hoping that eventually, you know, we will wake up to the new normal, whatever the new normal is, and we can start flying again and meet people in person.
That’s a nice segue into what I wanted to talk about, or at least the first thing I wanted to talk about is when you’re doing presentations for clients and, a recent one that we did for AVIXA on contactless and touch solutions, you started with a set of slides, kind of looking at where the industry is at right now and the impact, implications and solutions regarding Digital Signage in the midst of this pandemic, and I guess coming out of it.
Stefan: Yeah, the general way we are approaching it is to really look at the broad economy, to look at how people are impacted in their personal lives, how business in general is impacted and then we’re trying to to understand what does that all mean to the digital financial industry? So, just for the current phase sign, understanding how people are getting out of the lockdown phase and what it means. When we see partial reopening, when we see that restrictions are lifted, people can go out. Over here, we all have to face masks now (obviously have to do social distancing) and there’s a lot of talk about also technology solutions, like apps, to keep people at a distance or if they get infected, that you can trace the contacts very easily. From that personal perspective, you start to think about what it means for business?
And we’ve just been through this partial reopening this week, so small stores over here in Germany are allowed to open again, and that was kind of a big relief for many, many people because you can go shopping again, even if it’s only small stores, but you can go out and go shopping again. It’s also a big relief for businesses as they can start to generate revenue again. But on the other hand, that meant a lot of work also for the businesses because you have to get prepared to reopen. You have to have face masks for your employees, you have to have signs up. You have to make sure that not too many people enter your store. And from there, I mean, it’s a small step for what it means to the Digital Signage industry because obviously, here digital solutions can help a lot in getting operational you ready for reopening. And that’s the general way we try to think about things and do it step by step.
And the impact of all this and the scenarios and actions kind of differ by vertical market from what I was hearing from Florian the other day, that it could actually be good in certain respects for some sectors and for other sectors, it’s going to be problematic for a long time. What did you find?
Florian: Yeah, we clustered the vertical markets more or less in four different clusters. For the first one: essentials, grocery, DIY, banking, fashion, lifestyle, but also electronics-department stores, shopping malls. These guys are phase one so they are more or less opening again now or were able to stay open. And their main thing in regards to opening now is just access control. Obviously, that’s the biggest pain point. They all have them. They need to make sure that not too many people come into the store, as well as contactless(ness), because it’s probably the word of the year, everyone looks for contactless(ness). So, you need to, you know, you need to look for ways for how to serve your customers and how to offer whatever experiences left in your store to be as contactless as possible.
The second cluster is services and restaurants. That’s obviously much, much more difficult. When we look here at Europe, and we’re a few days, a few weeks maybe ahead of North America, but there’s still a long way until they will be able to open, so probably another four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, whatever and it’s very difficult because all the plan, you know, basically say that you need to limit the number of guests in your restaurant for example to 30%, you need six feet space between every guest and everything and obviously, you know, that makes it very difficult and also the business gets very difficult for these guys.
The third one is education and healthcare. Well, first you think, wow these guys must be the most potential market – it is. I mean healthcare, no question about it, but these guys have been busy with many other things (Yeah,) then fitting zeros at the hospital to the screens but we have been contacted by them and they’re really eager once the whole thing, you know, come a little bit in the flow, and they’re a little further on. Then they really need to, you know, retrofit their hospitals with more signage and everything, because their biggest challenge is to manage the masses, to manage, you know, people in there and to inform them.
And the last cluster has airlines, travel, and hospitality, and to be honest, that’s quite obvious for them. It’s very, very difficult. And when you look at all the numbers, I mean, Delta Airlines, they’re losing a hundred million every single day. $100 million, so that’s unbelievable. And so hotels and airlines, for them it will be very, very difficult, but we need them every day, they’re essential so there must be a solution. The only good thing about airlines and hospitality is that they’re quite International and we see already standards for this industry and the industry body defined some standards already, you know, how airline travel will be once the restrictions are lifted, and so they’re quite standardized, which also brings potential but obviously, you know, the willingness to spend big money is quite limited.
So let’s talk about when you first mentioned access control. What do you mean by that and how does it manifest itself?
Stefan: So access control. Here, we have restrictions in terms of the number of people that are allowed into a store. So there’s regulation that you can have one person per 20 square meters, so about 200 square feet. And as a shop owner, you have to make sure that not too many people enter your store. And we see a whole range of different solutions being applied. I mean, the most pragmatic and simple one is just having a security person standing in front of a store and counting people manually. That’s a pretty expensive way to do it because you have to pay these personnel.
There are technical solutions as well, and it starts basically with a simple people counter, which can be a simple light barrier with red and green light. So people see, okay, you’re allowed into the store, or you’re not allowed into the store because it’s full. And then you can go all the way up the spectrum to do very, very advanced sensors that do people counting like 3d sensors, coupled to a screen where you actually show the total number of people in the store. You can count staff and count customers with this kind of technology, and, yeah, you display on a screen: it’s okay for you to go in and or it’s not okay for you to go in. And you can have these screens in all formats and ways you can imagine. The most popular over here are digital frames because they are very flexible and you can move them around and the entrance area. And that’s really kind of a gold rush right now over here for these digital A-frame solutions, because everybody wants one, especially the big retailers, like grocery retailers, they need a couple of thousands of them.
And by A-Frames, in North American parlance, they probably call them sandwich boards, but basically small displays that are light enough to wheel out and they will stand like an easel on the sidewalk or outside a store and provide that information, right?
Florian: Exactly, yeah, they’re really cheesy, you know, we always laughed about these things, you know. They’re typically from China, and from no major brand, but they work and you know, they cost only like two thousand and if you integrate the sensors and everything, so it’s around two to three thousand on average, and they’re easy to install and the great thing about a digital A-Frames is that the staff is used to them because they use them as an analog, as a static version already for decades, right?
So, they know how to roll them out every morning and before this, that’s regardless of Coronavirus and everything and Digital Signage is also about ownership. And it’s really important that staff, you know, sees the benefit of it and A-Frames, as simple as it seems, you know, staff really understands that it helps them and so they take care of it, they roll it out in the morning and they make sure that other products are not blocking the view and everything, so that’s a reason why A-Frames are quite popular and funny enough, you know we also doing a conference in Latin America and Brazil and everything, Brazil was already full with them. When you went to a mall in Brazil it was full of A-Frames, obviously not counting people, but it was quite popular and everyone said, we just know how it works, and it’s simple and it’s cheap, and it just works. And it’s great because Digital Signage, sometimes it’s too sophisticated, you know, but sometimes simple, simple is the best.
Yeah, I often say when I’m doing consulting or just talking to groups that, yes, you can buy a Digital Signage solution that can do an amazing array of things, but there’s one hell of a lot of use cases, probably 90% of the time, they only need it to do one thing or a couple of things really well and the rest of it is kind of extraneous.
Florian: Yeah, exactly. And you know, we did some research and probably 80% to 90% of all screens are still used for basic digital poster purposes, you know, it’s a funky touch interactive thing. It’s just plain Digital Signage, and it works. It was too expensive five to ten years ago, but nowadays, it’s cheap and just works you know, in the form of an A-frame, but obviously also a screen mounted to the wall or just, you know, mounted from the ceiling. It works and that’s a good thing about it. We waited to get what?
What concerns me (I don’t know if concerns is really the word) but I wonder to make that leap from something that’s pulled to outside of the store to say I have a call or call to action, or to tell you that “the lunch special is this or that” is one thing’s very simplistic, as you say they understand how to do that, to introduce dynamic access controls that involve sensors, and not only a sensor for people walking up, but you’re going to have to have some sort of a return or manual signal of some kind that says “enough people left” or that “we can allow more people in”, that’s more complicated. Are the companies that are asking for this, have they got software solutions or other solutions that are being mashed up to make it all work or are they buying these things and then having to figure that out themselves?
Stefan: The technology for that has been around for quite a while, and we know six or seven different sensor technologies that can be used for people counting, so it’s not a matter of whether this technology is available or not. But as you said, it’s a matter of integration and they are only seeing clear jobs for systems integrators, because the retailers, the clients, they don’t have the time and the resources to think about, okay, we need a sensor, we need some software that actually does the counting, so some AI stuff, and then we need to find a software to actually display it on the screen. That’s not something they can do and it’s not something they want to do right now.
They really want a package delivered to the store, put it up there, have somebody install the sensor on the ceiling, and all of that has to be done within one hour. So basically, don’t interrupt operations, and don’t bother us with having to deal with the installation and choosing software and all of this.
Right. So, if you want to just sell this A-frame as a SKU, and just ship it out to people, that’s going to be fine for certain audiences but the real opportunity is for those solution providers and local integrators who will say, yeah, we can get you that but we’ll also put it all together and deliver it, so all we need from you is an hour of your time and electricity.
Florian: Dave, it would be even more radical, I think just shipping out a simple A-frame doesn’t move the needle. It needs to incorporate the analytics, and you need to position it so you, you know, count in and outgoing traffic, otherwise it won’t work (Right) and to be honest, if you don’t have something that works if you have too many people in your store, you pay hefty fine as a retailer. So it’s not something nice to have. Sometimes, there are regulations in Europe and we are sure it will also come to North America, you know, you pay five, ten, twenty thousand Euros or Dollars, whatever, you know, it’s fine when there are too many people in your store. And these regulations change from time to time, because of the whole Corona thing, this is what’s so difficult about fast to grasp and for the majority of the people, you know, now we’re in lockdown, and now slowly it’s getting up again, but it will be not an on and off thing. You know, people might die again, then they will change the regulations, tighten them a little bit again, and this will be all the case for the next 12-24 months, whatever, you know, when everyone is vaccinated. So that’s something we are still waiting for. And we need that and Digital Signage is made for that: to change regulations, for changing situations, and to show dynamic things so it needs to be fully integrated otherwise it won’t work.
Yeah, I think one of the things, particularly in larger foot footprint facilities, whether that’s for shopping or mass transport or whatever, I think there’s a big opportunity presenting itself for Digital Signage technology, because, as you just said, things are constantly going to change and there’s going to be such a heightened awareness and appetite for information that reinforces that, yes, we’re cleaning this space every hour or we’re doing this. Here’s what we’re doing to keep you safe, keep you healthy, and so on. So many stores that I walk into have these god awful little white grease boards or just stuff scrolled out on a sheet of paper that says, ‘We’re out of this. We’re out of that. But yes, we have this, we now have this’, and so on and I’m just thinking: good lord, this needs to be done and presented in a way that’s a lot more professional looking. Because when brands are talking about consumer experience, and even facilities talking about guest experience, when you get down to that level of do-it-yourself signage, it just looks terrible.
Stefan: Yeah, I completely agree. And it’s really, from our perspective, the entrance control is just the first point of conversation. Because I mean, that’s a requirement right now and everybody has to find a solution for that, but as you mentioned, there are other operational challenges throughout the stores, providing this kind of information that’s constantly changing. So, you use the screens you have or put in more screens, to do that kind of communication in a professional and good looking manner. But there are also other challenges like you have to control – and in fashion – you have to control access to your fitting rooms. So, the entrance door is where you have to count but it’s also fitting rooms.
You have to make sure that queues in front of your cashiers aren’t getting too long, so there are many, many more operational issues that need solutions. So we see a lot of potential for Digital Signage firms to provide solutions for that. And as I said, entrance control is probably just the first conversation you will have with the retailer. And there are many, many more to follow.
Florian: And therefore very frustrating I think for the whole industry is for the past five to ten years, everyone tried to create experiences, retailers to essentials, everyone. We wanted to increase the time people spent in stores or in the stations or whatever. And now it’s the total opposite. Now the great nations across the world say, you know, make sure that people are as fast as possible out of the store again. So it’s the total opposite. So we have to pause the whole experience, at least for the next 12 to 18 or 24 months because it’s really about efficiency. It’s about how Digital Signage can support efficient operations in the store.
Yeah, I’m doing a presentation next week for an executive team and one of the messages I’m going to have for them is: any thought that you have around selling your technology based on visual experience and wow factor, just forget it! You want to be entirely focused on what your technology will do to improve and streamline and make operations better and solve problems, just in the same way that meeting room signs, when they bubbled up about three four years ago, just caught on like wildfire because they solved a problem, and the same thing is gonna apply here, whether it’s front-ops or back-ops.
Florian: Absolutely, absolutely. Do you remember what we discussed this week, you know, in our call about touchscreens and everything. It’s also about offering customers a comfortable solution, a comfortable environment, because people are scared nowadays, to touch anything, just to get to a store in general. So we need to make sure that they feel as comfortable as possible. So we need to put up signs everywhere. As I mentioned before, you know, the screen has been cleaned, you know, 20 minutes ago, you need to offer you know, some cleaning, touch and all that stuff to make sure that, you know, customers feel as comfortable as possible in the situation. It’s anyway, you have to walk around with some face mask and everything, you have to get used to that, but still, that’s very important. So digital, it’s more important than ever to really inform, and make operations more efficient.
How food services, food and beverage works in North America is the same as Europe in certain respects, when it comes to things like fine dining and cafes, and so on. But for quick service restaurants, drive-thrus are not at all common in Europe, but incredibly common here and the QSR in North America, a lot of them are doing okay through all this because they already did 70% of their business through drive-thru and now it’s as much as 90% of their business. But how are restaurants going to adjust to the new norm, particularly in Europe and other parts of the world where drive-thru is just not a thing?
Florian: Like quick service restaurants? It’s quite funny because the rest of the world is totally opposite. So, 70 to 80% buy inside the restaurant and only 20% is drive-thru because most restaurants don’t even offer drive-thru. And to be honest, many people just go by foot or by train to the restaurant and not by car. And so currently, most of them are open. So McDonald’s and KFC, all of them, are open in Europe, but you can only go pick up your stuff and leave the store again. So you’re not allowed to eat there, and not in a vicinity of, I think, 500 meters or so.
People just shouldn’t, you know, grab their stuff and then eat in front of the restaurant, so currently it’s really just the pickup station more or less. The challenge there is for the kiosk terminals, you know, for ordering your food, because they are all touch base. And that’s what people are quite reluctant to use currently. So many go back to their old form of ordering, you know, straight to the desk, which doesn’t help either because then you’re getting closer to the salespeople, but in general, and it’s more, take out business currently, and standard restaurants are still closed.
Looking ahead, with some of these scenarios in action that you talked about, how do you think digital display technology in the software behind it and everything, what are those things that it’s going to be doing that can solve problems and kind of improve situations?
Florian: Well, that’s a difficult one. (Laughs)
Stefan: I’ll take it. There has been that magic triangle of experiences, convenience and frontline service. That was really key to retail in the past, and all three things will be important again in the future. We’ve talked about experiences and you won’t have a serious discussion about your experience right now, we all agree, but it will come back. I mean, in terms of strategic conversations, retailers and brands are thinking about how to reposition their brands, how to represent brands, and this experience. But, we also see a fourth theme emerging and that’s contactless. So, instead of a triangle, we have a rectangle between service, contactless interactions, convenience and experiences. And you can think of lots of technology solutions to these four different themes that the Digital Signage industry should create solutions for.
Yeah, I wonder about contactless and we talked about this on the Touch Webinar the other day. When you get into things like gesture, and voice, it’s orders of magnitude more complicated and fraught with potential error. So have you seen much adoption of that to date and will that change? Because it’s great to talk about voice but, particularly in Europe, where you’ve got so many different languages all kind of flowing through the different countries or at least normally. You can develop a voice based system that will work well in Munich. But what happens when a French person comes up to the thing with a different regional dialect and everything else? Can it work?
Florian: Oh, you would be surprised. I mean, when we talk about Google and then Siri and Alexa and so, they support dozens of languages, and most European languages are supported. So that’s a great thing about the Oracle Kiosk, for example, you know, the amount of language and especially the Airport’s also, and the biggest challenge with voice is not so much about recognizing different languages. I mean, the main languages are not a problem. accents are obviously a big problem, but main languages are okay.
The problem is how do you integrate this into your user experience and in your user interface? And the thing is when you start, you know, people are not used to speaking with a shelf or with a kiosk or so. So you first have to put stickers, lots of stickers, “Please speak with our kiosk”, you know, “You don’t have to touch us”, “Speak to us”, and then you need visual feedback. So, whatever you say to the system, you need to make sure that you get the visual feedback on the screen, obviously not through voice or loudspeakers, but on the screen, so you’ll see the system is understanding you and that you can interact with the system.
So, we believe voice and gestures and everything can be just a complementing touch. Because touch is still the most intuitive way to interact with a machine and it will be, because we all use our phone. And to be honest, you know, yes we all try it out, see how cool that is, but in public nobody uses it, but at home, it’s fine and you use Alexa and everything, we all have it at home and it works fine. But that’s in your comfort zone, not when you’re out in public space, and that’s what Digital Signage is all about. And we believe voice is more of a form of interaction to communicate from the human being to the machine. And then the feedback is more or less the display. You can also, if you want to, obviously get feedback by voice, but we believe feedback on the screen is more efficient and more natural than that.
I would imagine right now as consultants, that there are a lot of potential customers out there, both on the end user and the vendor side, who are sitting in their home offices. probably wondering, dear God, what do I do going forward? Will display technology help me in some way? What’s that sort of simple message that you can provide to them that says, you know, I always tell people the first thing you need to do is figure out why you want to do this.
Florian: Dave, nobody wakes up in the morning and says I need a display. That’s not first on the mind of anybody, you know. A display is just a tool to achieve certain goals. And so currently, and to be honest, you know, the whole industry is busier than ever, because so many brands and retailers are currently asking, you know, what can we do in order to be successful in the future again? So, it’s more or less to understand, you know, what the brand, what the retailer really wants to achieve? And what the main stakeholders are? And at the end, we only decide, you know, what kind of technology is most useful for that. So, it’s not so much about putting screens somewhere, but it’s really, you know, supporting the customer journey and supporting the engagement as a brand, whatever the goals of the customers, that’s more important than just the display. Display can be only a tool or platform to achieve that. (Yes)
All right. Great conversation. Thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Florian: All good. Thanks for having us!
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.