Bluefin’s Randy Guy On How Small Is Beautiful When It Comes To Screens In Retail
March 16, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Much of the attention in digital signage goes to big-dollar projects that feature huge screens and flashy content, but there’s a good business and a lot of trade happening with much smaller displays that just help explain and sell stuff.
Bluefin International kind of fell into digital signage in the mid-2000s, and it has turned into a full-time business. The companies that were buying corporate-branded digital picture frames from Bluefin started asking for more functionality, to make the screens interactive in settings like retail. Now the Atlanta company has a wide range of sizes and types of flat panel displays that brands are using to influence consumers right at merchandising positions.
I had a great chat with Randy Guy, Bluefin’s owner, about how he found his way into digital signage, and how his company operates – straddling a main office in Georgia with a manufacturing plant he owns and runs in Shenzhen, China.
Randy, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me about Bluefin’s roots and the core focus of the company?
Randy Guy: Sure. Dave, that’s a kind of a tricky question, but we started 21 years ago selling USB flash drives out of China. Everything we tried was a challenge, and eventually in 2004, people wanted us to customize the flash drives and put people’s logos on them. That got us in the promotional products business. We invested in some facility over there to do customization.
In 2007, 2008, we started selling a lot of digital picture frames. The pharma companies, the big guys were giving away to doctors and everybody digital picture frames, and people started wanting us to customize those picture frames by adding touch, push button, motion sensors, things like that. So we developed our own ad player in 2008 based on our own proprietary platform, and we engineered and designed it and held all the mechanicals ourselves, and that kind of got us in the LCD market. So we started making custom LCDs in 2011 for some large global brands and then when Brightsign introduced their all-in-one chip back in 2016, they came to us and we were able to put that in an all-in-one fixture, and that kinda got us into the digital signage market.
So it was a tricky way to get into the digital signage market, but that’s the truth, and that’s how we got here. It’s 21 years later. We have owned a facility in China since 2012, where we do all our engineering design and manufacturing. We still have our promotional product business. It’s thriving and focuses on consumer electronics, think anything from earbuds to USB chargers, anything that you would buy in an electronic store, we still put people’s logos on.
So our background is customization. Our background is giving the people exactly what they want, and we’ve just transitioned that to digital signage and LCD manufacturing, that’s probably one of our core strengths and they all see the businesses you get exactly what you want from Bluefin. You have a challenge or you have a specific need for an LCD, we can customize the fixture or the LCD to meet exactly what you’re looking for.
That’s interesting. I suspect with a lot of companies in this space, if you said, “Yeah, I really liked that, but I need it in blue”, there’s just going to get pushback saying no, can’t do that.
Randy Guy: Absolutely. In fact, one of our largest roll-outs was in white. We went to a large furniture manufacturer, a global retail brand, and they insisted on white touchscreens, white housings. So color is not a problem on our end. We’ve offered them in blue, red, and white has been since our largest rollout where they insisted on that color.
Yeah. If you’re a conventional manufacturer, this just wouldn’t be in your wheelhouse at all but you’ve got that experience.
Randy Guy: Absolutely. To be honest with you, we don’t really compete with the traditional guys. We’re niche, and we’re so focused on customization and larger projects where people really need something customized and they want to hold those mechanicals for 5 to 10 years, that’s why they come to us. It’s because they know we deliver a product today, five years from now, they can get the exact same product from us, the same customization, same everything. We keep that SKU constant for those guys throughout the life of their project.
This may be a difficult question because “typical” is probably all over the place, but what would be a typical kind of environment that you would be in with your screens?
Randy Guy: Our background has been the point of purchase market, working with retailers and the retail fixture manufacturers, coming up with solutions. There’s not a retailer out there that doesn’t have our screens working. So really when they come to us with a challenge and they say, I’ve got this much space, or I need this particular mounting pattern, or I need this particular setup from a touchscreen perspective, and we want to specific void of space, I think that’s probably our biggest value add and then making it all come together, giving them exactly what they want.
We offer around 30 screen sizes between the standard 16:9, and then also the stretch-bar LCD category, and then we custom cut sizes as well, so there’s really not a size we can’t handle and we can’t provide. We do focus on the smaller sizes because once you get into the bigger glass, we really lose our cost advantages from the big guys cutting so much 43 and 55 inch glass. But we still do that. Our customers are very specific about needing a specific mechanical design or something customized. Those guys, the big guys, don’t want to mess with a thousand custom 43 inch monitors, but that’s right up our alley.
Yeah, they want to do a hundred thousand.
Randy Guy: Exactly.
So a lot of this would be like end cap displays, merchandising displays, like in something like a Best Buy where there’s an audio product or a home automation product, and there’ll be a screen there that’s an explainer screen. Is that pretty typical?
Randy Guy: Absolutely. That’s the perfect application. We have a lot of units in these different retailers. The touch screens become really important when it’s a higher end category and the product might be complicated or it needs more explanation, or the customer might have more questions or wants to dig in deeper on other items like accessories and how the product works. That’s where touchscreen interactivity really comes into play in the retail market because you can drive home your message, and the customer can explore the product on the screen versus we still sell a lot of just looping videos, your Best Buy basic 10” screen that just loops a video, it gives you a basic idea of what the product does, and it shows them some pictures and videos of the product and real life applications. But the touch screens are really where it gets deeper and you can really enhance the customer experience with information.
And a lot of times they’re smaller just simply because the retailer doesn’t want to surrender stocking space and merchandising space so they want to integrate it there, but it can’t be a big ass display because then they can’t put products there, right?
Randy Guy: Exactly. The small form factors are ideal for the point of purchase because you are competing for the physical space on the shelf itself or on the display. They want to stack it full of products, it can be speakers or earbuds or Bluetooth headsets so they want to have plenty of room on there for the product. So smaller is better in that sense.
But now the digital signage world is finding a lot of applications for small form factors. They’re thinking, this might be a great opportunity to engage in a customer here or different spots throughout different buildings, whether it be corporate or hospitality. VisualSign just started to come around, I think, with the small form factors, we’re seeing a lot of opportunity, especially with the customization we can do. They can have something really unique to grab people’s attention.
Yeah. I’ve been in digital signage for a long time and have been paying attention to it for at least 21 years. I would say the first wave of digital signage in retail, if you set aside those companies that put screens in and want to sell ads on them, and they’ll put them in for free. If it’s the retailers paying for it, the first wave seemed to be large screens hanging from the ceiling on the walls and everything else.
That didn’t really work, and the next wave seems to be maybe big LED feature walls, but just one of them and then small screens, right at the point of purchase.
Randy Guy: Absolutely. We’re seeing a transition from path to purchase where a lot of consumer packaged goods brands advertise on billboards and commercials. They want to be where you’re buying the product. They want to be where the product is, and then a lot of times you’re not going to hang a 55 inch by a candy aisle or by a potato chip aisle. You’re going to need a smaller form factor to grab the customer’s attention and drive them to your product.
But the brands are starting to see a lot more value in being at the point of purchase versus the path to purchase. So we were excited about that kind of transition and how to forge that customer experience because the brands have the money to spend, and if they want to be front and center where the product is purchased, that’s a great opportunity for our industry.
When I was dealing with packaged goods companies like 12-15 years ago, and their brand marketers were asking about doing digital display in the store, right at the fixture, they liked it, but they said the unit cost was too much, didn’t want to spend it and they only needed it for six months or maybe even three months. Could they rent it?
How has that changed or are those CPG brands now willing to spend the money?
Randy Guy: They are willing to spend the money, and I think that not only on the brands, but the retailers and the store owners themselves are seeing opportunities to share that screen space and get value added as well.
A perfect example would be the CPG might get 75% of the screen for 75% of the time, and the store owner would get, or the store chain would get, or the retail chain would get the other 25% of the time and they can share that screen, but the screens have come down in cost. We have a solution called Daisy chain where you can put multiple screens on one player. So that helps drive this cost down and you only have one endpoint to maintain. So we feel like that’s a really good solution that we’re pitching to a lot of people. We’re starting to roll out in volume to different retailers with that solution, but basically you can run, say a 24” stretch, you can run 12 of those displays off of a 4k box. So that helps drop the costs down and it helps them repurpose the product and they have a lot more screens for a lot less.
I suspect your a technical guys, particularly those who’ve been with you for a while, have been on a bit of a journey because I was interested in digital picture frames just as you were going in the late two thousands and thinking, maybe these things are digital signgage, they’re low cost or integrated and everything else, but the technology, the underlying hardware in a lot of cases I suspect was more than a little flaky, but how hard was it to find reliable goods or is that why you just set up your own manufacturing?
Randy Guy: It was a challenge going from some of the higher end industrial grade monitors, a seven inch monitor might have been $400 and a digital picture frame was $40. While the fixture gas and the retail markets are great, we love this $40 solution, but it doesn’t have the functionality or the industrial grade qualities of this $400 a unit. So that was our challenge.
How do we beef up our digital picture frame to make it into an ad player, and that’s when we researched the chip sets and designed a platform around that, and we took control of the mechanicals and put it in metal housings and those types of things. So we industrialized digital picture frames is really what we did and how we got started in a very crude sense of product development. We took a really low cost plastic housing, a digital picture frame, and we put it in a metal housing, beefed up the chip sets, gave it more functionality, we added touch and push-button capabilities and motion sensors and those types of things. That’s how we got started in 2008 with our first ad player.
So you’re kind of remanufacturing them?
Randy Guy: Actually redesigning them, and believe it or not, we’re still selling picture frames. We’re still selling that plastic low end picture frame with people’s logos on it. It’s kinda made a comeback in the last couple of years.
Yeah, I was walking around a Best Buy recently and saw a company song that I thought, oh, this was like a flashback for me. I felt like I was back in 2008, like you say, the demand is there.
Randy Guy: Absolutely, especially on the 10” size. Once the screen get down to lower costs, people can get more bang for their buck and there’s been some really good companies that have come out with solutions that integrate with your phone and have apps. I can be out fishing with my kids or in a football game and I can take a picture and I can download it directly to my mother’s 13 or 15 inch I bought her that’s sitting on the mantle, and so she gets real time pictures of us at the beach or wherever we are.
So they’ve come a long way from the original where you had to put everything onto an SD card and plug it in and then take it out and update the pictures and everything. So some of the applications now with picture frames are really cool.
When you started to redesign these picture frames, is it at that point that you started working with BrightSign or was that kind of further down the road?
Randy Guy: That was further down the road. We were out selling our ad player and we had a global brand that wanted us to make custom monitors for them, and then we got introduced to BrightSign that way, so we optimized our monitors for BrightSign’s box and then when they came to market with their own all in one chip, we were the first ones to integrate it and bring it to market, and that their platform took it to a whole nother level from functionality and connectivity.
And they’ve brought all the programming you can do to all the touch screens and interactivity, so that just elevated it to another level from where we had developed.
I’d assume that kind of removes some of the R&D headaches and challenges that you’re facing because they have that figured out and you just got to snap that board in?
Randy Guy: Absolutely, especially on the content creation side and the interactivity. We used to do layer touchscreens where it was quite the challenge to program and everything else, and they’ve got all that canned in the package and it’s very simple. Everybody’s familiar with it. That makes it a lot easier technically for sure.
Does it add a layer of comfort as well when you’re working with resellers and integrators that you can say it’s BrightSign under the hood and they feel better?
Randy Guy: Oh, absolutely. They are an award-winning platform and software and their support and the reliability and the products themselves. People love them, so absolutely, it provides a layer of comfort.
They’ve done a nice job. It’s at a level now when I talk to people, they’re saying we’re thinking about PCs, or maybe we’re going to use smart displays or maybe we’ll use BrightSign boxes. So it’s at a level now where it seems to be its own category.
Randy Guy: Absolutely. They’ve done a great job and their products are exceptional. Between the support they provide and the product quality and reliability, it’s definitely a bonus to integrate their products into our stuff and the digital signage world and their retail and point of purchase world really resonates with our solutions.
I guess there’s not really an installed base, but from the numbers of products out there, what would be the percentage of them that are connected versus just working off of a memory card?
Randy Guy: I would say probably 75% are working off a memory card. There might be more than that that’s connected, but how often people update content is never as often as they want to or they think they’re going to when they roll out an application.
So if it’s just working off a memory card, it’s not connected. If there’s a problem, something locks up or whatever, does anybody know, or you’re completely at the mercy of the local store manager?
Randy Guy: If you’re not connected to the internet, then you’re not going to have visibility for that time. The beauty of our products is that if there’s any kind of power issue or for any reason, the unit reboots, it fully auto starts, it doesn’t require any interaction.
They’re designed not to go down, to be honest with you. That’s the beauty of our platform is to know the OS and things like that you’re going to have challenges with. As far as locking up and having to reboot or something like that, we just don’t have those challenges in our platforms.
So the bigger challenge in a lot of respects is just all the stuff that you can buy off Alibaba that says it’s a looping ad display or whatever and those are, I’m sure out in retail as well, and those who go down, maybe they don’t have the routines to come back. So somebody would look at that and go, this sort of stuff doesn’t work, I don’t want to buy this.
Randy Guy: Absolutely. If there’s any opportunity for the unit so you don’t have to choose a menu or do something to start the device, that’s a challenge. Retailers lose power all the time. A lot of stores shut down power at night. So no one has the stomach anymore to have those touchscreens, and if you rely on the store manager or the local staff to keep your signage running, you’re in trouble.
So it has to be plug and play and it has to be autostart, and it has to correct itself if there are any power issues or anything like that, it has to take care of those challenges on its own. You can’t rely on any human help at the store.
Are there any limitations as to what you can do, like it’ll only run standard definition video or anything like that?
Randy Guy: No limitations. Any kind of crazy resolutions that the screen manufacturers come up with, we find a way to integrate them in our displays and make that available to the content guys. I’d say the stretch bar LCD is a challenge. Well, content is always a challenge because there’s content creation and getting it updated and getting it approved by all the different parts of whether it be brands or manufacturers that have to approve the content. But when you start changing the resolutions from standard 16:9 or standard 1080p, then that’s when they start having real delays and challenges and that can mess up a project. It’s more on the content creation side than it is us being able to deliver the content on the screen.
Are you seeing demand? I did a podcast recently with another company, Instorescreen, and they do inline shelf edge displays that are like ribbon displays and that sort of thing. Are you getting the ask for that sort of thing?
Randy Guy: We absolutely participate in that market. I think it’s going to be a challenge long-term though. I think you can overwhelm the customer at some point. You can have too much video. You can have too much color. In fact, we’ve had displays where people are trying to take the color out and they’re making it more monochrome looking almost on a regular display.
So I think that there’s a place for those solutions. I think it’s going to be more higher end, higher dollar valued products. I can’t imagine that we’re going to see shampoo or toothpaste full of LCD screens, telling you what the price is on every one of those shelves that are trying to sell those, but I can see where a higher end item, for example, home audio, $200-$300 items. I can see where you can use stretch displays for something like that to not only educate the customer, but there’s more to it, like specs and technical information to give on something like that, and then the dollar value supports the spend on the digital signage. I just can’t imagine a shampoo or a toothpaste driving in a value to warrant having a digital signage solution. So that’s my take on it.
I think it’s going to be very targeted for certain categories, maybe new products or something like that, but I don’t see a future where every shelf in the grocery stores has a screen on it. That’s just me personally. I just don’t see it.
I always liken it to a kaleidoscope effect, and years ago, working with a company that was going to put screens in like flat panel displays with ads on them on casino floors, and they engaged me to walk around the casino with them and ask where they should put them on. I said not in here, period, because there’s too damn much going on there. They’re just going to get lost in all the other razzle-dazzles that’s there, put them in the entryways, put them in the common areas, it’s the same thing. If every shelf edge has motion media going, that is just, like you say, it’s overwhelming.
Randy Guy: Absolutely. Humans can be overstimulated, they’ll just tune it all out. I think that you’ll lose the effectiveness of it.While I think there’s a more targeted market for shelf edge, I don’t think it’s going to be a hundred percent off the shelves or an opportunity in my mind.
Is it easier now to go into stores because 20 years ago there was no power in the floor, very little power at the merchandising areas, in the shelf gondolas or any of that stuff so you had to do drops of power cords and this and that, all kinds of hacks to get power to the screens. Is it better now?
Randy Guy: Absolutely. In the places where digital signage and point of purchase kiosks are located, the retail owners are finding a way to get power to those locations. They see that it’s a necessity. We used to end caps in some of the largest home improvement stores and things like that and they didn’t have power, but now they’re seeing the benefit that they need to get power there.
Another benefit of a lot of our products is that you can use power over ethernet, which makes it low voltage. So you don’t have to do a power drop with a certified electrician and worry about code and pulling permits, and things like that, and you can move the product around a whole lot easier with a network cable than you can trying to find a power outlet. So power over ethernet solved a lot of those issues for people that were hesitant to run a power drop but it’s pretty easy to run a network cable.
Do you see much business outside of retail?
Randy Guy: Oh, we do. Like I said, the digital signage world in general is starting to warm up, especially the interactive touchscreens. The start of the pandemic was a scare for us because of all the noise around touch screens and surfaces and transmitting COVID, but that went away. Thank goodness. That was going to be a real challenge for the market if that hadn’t changed, so that put a scare in us big time.
One of the biggest applications we’re seeing uses for our small form factor of touchscreens is people are able to control larger screens, almost using our screens as a remote control. So you get the bang for the buck, you can have interactivity, you have a robust solution. You can go through a lot of different content, but it’s being thrown up on a bigger screen where you get a bigger experience and then you can engage people that aren’t actually touching the interactive part, so you can engage people all around the store or the lobby or wherever since they can see what’s going on. So we think that’s a pretty cool solution and almost a cheaper way to put interactivity on a large screen TV is by having a control box. That’s a lot lower cost.
You don’t want to have a 65 inch touchscreen. You can, but it’s going to be really super expensive, and people are, other than wayfinding, a lot of people aren’t comfortable walking up huge screens and start banging on it and touching on it, there’s a hesitation in that sense and when you’re so close to a big screen, you can’t really take in all the content anyway. So we love solutions where we use our small screens to drive larger screens, we think that has a lot of legs.
Yeah, and with LED video walls, with some exceptions, for the most part, you really don’t want people walking up to that LED wall and touching it in any way.
Randy Guy: Exactly. Touchscreens have always had a little hesitancy from the public, but they’re getting used to them with the tablets and iPads and those types of devices, they’re getting used to coming up and touching smaller screens, but you’re right. You don’t want them touching the bigger screens and people were a little bit leery of doing that anyway.
You recently added an open operating system for an all-in-one display that has ARM processors and can run on like Linux and Android. So it shifts or provides an alternative to BrightSign. Why did that come about?
Randy Guy: Just supply chain issues. We can’t have enough options in the world right now. We have some specific clients who are using those platforms. At the end of the day, we’re a contract manufacturer. That’s our customization angle is that we want to make whatever product you need. So it was twofold. One, the product supply issues, and anything could happen in this world from a supply chain standpoint, it was what we’ve all figured out. And number two, customers really want that solution. A lot of people are already using that solution. We felt that we were missing some market share and some opportunities there. We wanted to be able to offer any platform they want to use and pretty much be a one-stop shop.
So if you had a screen network that was using a lot of Android driven boxes or Android smart displays, they didn’t want to add this into the network, running something that’s different. They would prefer that this be Android too?
Randy Guy: Absolutely. So if they’ve already spent the time and money to develop an Android app and they’re supporting it then they want as many devices as they can get on that platform. So they don’t have to support multiple platforms. So we were getting shut out of a lot of opportunities,where they insisted on something running Android. They loved our product, but they had to have Android. So that was a challenge.
And as we talked about before, their only other option probably would be to go on Alibaba and then cross their fingers, right?
Randy Guy: Absolutely. Being a US-based company is a huge advantage over Alibaba and those types of companies of the world. Just from the standpoint, we support all our products in the U S. You’ve got credit terms. You’ve got RMA support and it’s just a lot easier to handle projects and a lot more comfortable on the thrust side of things. So we see that as a huge benefit owning our own facility in China, we’re cost competitive with anybody in the world. So we take that factor out.
So the ability to have inventory and samples and can support projects, US-based you know, that gives us a big advantage.
Yeah. You could have a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen, but if they’re busy on something else, well, too bad.
Randy Guy: Absolutely, and then, those guys, they don’t like to run a 100 units or 50 units or 75 units and then run 75 this week and you come back three weeks later and want 30 more, that doesn’t go over. You don’t stay in their graces very long, but customization and projects, that’s been our business for 21 years.
Someone might order 500 pieces today and if they come back three weeks later, oh, shoot. I should’ve ordered some spares, I need it. That’s what we do. That’s not a challenge on our end. A lot of people resonate with that and they appreciate that. They get a flat pricing on stuff like that, and we’re here to serve them and make sure that they get what they need. And if they need an extra 50 units for gosh sakes, we’re not gonna penalize them or be mad that they need 50 more units because the quantity is low. We’ve got to see the bigger picture, the whole thing.
In 2022, what more are we going to see out of Bluefin?
Randy Guy: We’ve got a couple of surprises up our sleeve that we’re designing on. There’s a few segments of the market that that we think are underserved, that we’re really eyeballing. One thing about being a small company is that we are small enough that we care about the customers and we listen to customers, but we’re also big enough that we can take care of the customers and we’re getting a lot of feedback from a couple of different channels in the market that they’re having a heartburn with and they’re struggling with, and being a small company, we can pivot and try to meet some of those needs of the customers where they’re having issues. So we’re excited about a couple of initiatives that we’ve got, hopefully gonna roll out here in the first half of this year.
Hopefully prior to InfoComm, and so we’ve got a few things coming out. We’d love to get back on here and talk to you about as we move along.
All right. So if people want to know more work and how can they find you online?
Randy Guy: We are TheBluefin.com.
The only other thing I have on here I wanna make sure we cover, our supply chain issues are resolving quickly, so we’re offering more products to hedge against future supply chain issues. Logistics is still a challenge, but our lead times are back down in our normal four to five week range now. Getting the product to the United States is different. Air freight is reliable, but it’s really expensive right now, ship freight is not reliable and it’s still expensive. So it’s a double edged sword there, but from a production capability, we’re getting back into business, we are ready to roll. From that standpoint, we are seeing the pandemic kind of fade away on the supply chain side from component issues.
All right, Randy, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Randy Guy: Oh, absolutely. I appreciate you having me on, I look forward to coming back soon with some more exciting news.