Loek Wermenbol Of First Impression On How Great Retail Digital Signage Jobs Start With Great Questions

July 18, 2023 by Dave Haynes

Things are changing – and both buyers and sellers are getting more knowledgeable about how to design and execute digital signage projects. But it’s still nice to have a chat with an AV solutions company that resolutely insists on establishing the objectives behind a job before even talking about the technology that might get used. And how much of it.

The Dutch firm First Impression made its first impression with me when it kept getting recognized earlier this year at the global Digital Signage Awards, which were handed out back In February during ISE in Barcelona.

“Who are those guys?” I was asked.

“No idea,” I replied.

But now I do know, because I met Loek Wermenbol, the company’s Retail Strategy Director, at the recent Digital Signage Summit Europe in Munich. We found a relatively quite little area in the hotel lobby and had a great chat about the origins of First Impression – which is located down near Eindhoven. We talked about a lot of things, notably how it approaches engagements with clients, including the Dutch beauty brand Rituals.

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Tell me about First Impression. What do you guys do? 

Loek Wermenbol: We are First Impression, what we call on paper an AV integrator, as many companies over here …

But you’re qualifying that.

Loek Wermenbol: No, maybe other people qualify us as an AV integrator in the market and we still are. 

They put you in that bucket, but there’s more to it. 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, there’s definitely more to it and I think our proposition that we have is a little different than some of the other integrators in the market. First of all, strategy is a really important part of what we offer and we really try to help the customer to ask the right question, and sometimes that’s needed in the process. Yes, they have knowledge, but most of the time, not all of the knowledge is needed to do really good integrations. 

Because in part, they’re fixated on a display or something other that’s captured their imagination.

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah. It can be technical or otherwise, if other departments are involved, information can be fragmented throughout the organization, and it might be hard to bring that together to form the right question, and sometimes there’s just a lack of knowledge, and that’s okay because it’s a different field of play for a lot of retailers.

Yes, they have big online marketing teams, etc. But doing in-store communication, it’s a little bit of marketing, it’s a little bit of formula, it’s a little bit of data, and that combines and is needed for a good integration. So if you help your customer determine what that right question is and where we actually can help them solve problems or help them with the threats they have in the market, or enlighten their opportunities. In the end, the ROI on what we do right and what we are going to install in a solution will be much better. So rather than just answer…

And it’s gonna scale out as opposed to being one of.

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, of course, and we’re in the scaling business too, but you have to scale the right solution rather than just a solution, and of course, we also integrate Windows screens and sometimes that is just step one. 

Right, but then they’re a customer and can ask you for more.

Loek Wermenbol: Definitely, sometimes the challenge is bigger, sometimes they already have digital in place and need to replace us, or want to make the second step or the third step in the process, and sometimes it’s the first step for retailers in the world of digitization on the retail floor.

And then the steps are different, but still, you have to focus on where you want to be in three or four years also as a retailer. I think at First Impression, we help them really well in defining those steps towards that in three to four years, and step one can be an easy step. Let’s do a rollout of window screens because it is almost in the industry, a no-brainer in integration. 

Still, you have to do that correctly, with the right content, etc. There is a lot to talk about. You can talk for half or an hour about just window screens, etc. But, that strategy part is you ask what do we do differently, it’s just one part. By offering a more holistic service package to our customers. 

So it’s a lot more than where do you want to put it, how many do you need, and when do you want it in? 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah. Because if you’re a supplier of hardware, you’re just a supplier.

Yeah, you’re not a business partner.

Loek Wermenbol: Exactly. If you are more on the strategic side and you are helping your customers achieve their business goals or to tackle their problems, you are on the strategic side, and you’re a totally different person on the table. When it’s from a strategic point of view, rather than just a hardware provider and the added value is much bigger, and otherwise, it’s just about how fast can you do it, what’s your price, etc. 

Yeah, so let’s back up a little bit. Did the company start that way or did they realize that this is the customer house and this is how we should evolve, and how long has the company been around?

Loek Wermenbol: No, it definitely didn’t start that way at all. The company started 26 years ago already, and it literally started…

In the time of CRTs. 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, one of the owners who started the company was a DJ and into music and creating cool parties, literally starting from the basement of his parents as many of those beautiful stories go. And he bought some materials to make the show a little bit more attractive, more materials, and at one point, he had so much of materials that he could rent out some stuff. 

That’s where the business began and that’s where the First Impression began. So that was really more the rental side of the AV technology, and through the years that of course had evolved and after roughly six to seven years, fixed installation became a part of the organization, and basically everything turned around and it became a bigger part, until where it’s now. 

Almost the only thing we do is that we still have a little department that does temporary projects but it’s mainly fixed installations as it goes in the market. And we focus heavily on retail. Roughly 80% of what we do is retail, and the other part is Oracle experiences, which can be an experience center, a business center, a museum, or a building that has an experience factor in it.

And you’re based in the Netherlands?

Loek Wermenbol: Yes.

Is that the primary market, or are you kinda across Europe?

Loek Wermenbol: It started of course out in the Netherlands as our home market but definitely not our only market. We have an office in the south of the Netherlands, our headquarters is in Tilburg. We have an office in Amsterdam but also recently, we opened offices in France, and also in Germany. But we’re already operating globally, and doing installations all over the world and on every continent.

Is that because it starts with something more regional and as they say, can you also help us out with the store we’re opening up in Shanghai?

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, and it really depends on the brand, for example, if you look at Rituals, those are big Dutch brands. 

What do they sell? 

Loek Wermenbol: All kinds of beauty products and everything you need as a woman to feel good.

So, nice high-margin products. 

Loek Wermenbol: Nice high-margin products. 

 They probably don’t want to say that, but that’s the reality.

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah. It’s a really beautiful brand and it’s actually a brand that a lot of trade retailers look at because they are there in the markets on lots of different levels and also in AV technology. 

And pardon the pun, for them, first impressions are, I suspect, really important.

Loek Wermenbol: They are, but actually there is a funny story because we really wanted that client in the beginning, but they were quite resilient against AV integrations because they thought it didn’t resemble their brand because it’s all about serenity and the body and the products, and if you look at their stores, you may figure out why, but we actually did two things.

One of them was to create a piece of content. It was really simple, but with a little bit of animation in it, in line with the branch values of Rituals, and the other thing we did, we made a breakdown of the comparison between the integration of a Windows screen, comparison with paper, and the number of replacements they did with paper. And that was a really interesting business case, and those two things together with the setup we created in our unique experience center in Tilburg, managed to get them over and finally convinced them to go into digital, with little steps. The first step is a window display, a cash desk display, the first thing most retailers will do. But now we evolved from that and actually, Rituals is the perfect client to work with because their teams now know how to operate in the equation together with us to get the best results and to do innovations that are unique in the market. 

And it’s not just you going to them trying to sell them something new, like, “Hey we went to this trade show and we saw these new amazing displays. You should have some!”

Loek Wermenbol: No. Because then you’re selling technique, and we never start with hardware. We always start with the right challenge and question. 

For instance, we created a unique piece for them that’s all about perfume, and they didn’t sell perfume for a long time because it’s a hard category, lots of big competitors, high loyalty with brand loyalty with which potential customers look for themselves. There’s always one fragrance that they’ve had for ages, so how do you convince people to switch? 

Yeah, completely foreign to me, but…

Loek Wermenbol: Maybe some listeners will recognize this.

But we created a really nice piece that not only looks beautiful but actually does the job of convincing people maybe to try one of the perfumes of Rituals, and in the end can convince them to replace a bottle that has been there for ages. Of course, if you look at that from an aesthetic point of view, it looks beautiful, but the magic is inside with how we use sensors and data to figure out which perfume fits the market. Actually, we were awarded that two times with the best digital innovation for retail in 2022. 

Yeah, I wasn’t aware of your company, but if I remember correctly, at the Digital Signage Awards, your company won two or three awards.

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah. At the Digital Signage Awards, we won three and a recommendation. So we were getting back and forth to the pool. 

And I was like, who are those guys?

Loek Wermenbol: I know. I think we’re a challenger in the market and sometimes it’s good to be a challenger. I think one of the big advantages we have is we’re still privately owned. So there’s no private equity or something.

 How many people? 

Loek Wermenbol: Almost 200. 

Okay, that’s a good size company in this industry. 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, definitely, and did a turnover of 40 million euros last year. So that’s quite a decent company to show it like that, and of course, you were there, last night, we were awarded as the rising star in the industry. I think that says a lot. 

We are noted in the market, not only by our colleagues and the industry itself, but also by retailers, of course, because we do something different and we try to help them with the total process of integrations, in a smart way that it also connects to the total customer journey because that physical space where we do the integrations in the end we’re a specialist in doing communications on the retail floor. We’re more like an agency than a hardware integrator. We use the hardware components to make it possible, but in the end, it’s part of a bigger thing. 

Yeah, I was going to ask about the creative side of it. Obviously, it didn’t start with creative because you were doing DJ rentals and things like that, but did you add on in-house creative capability because external agencies, maybe the agencies of record for these different brands, didn’t really get it, didn’t understand it and was this a need, or did you just see it as another revenue stream?

Loek Wermenbol: No, definitely not the last one. In the end, you have to do that properly, and they will be additional revenue. 

But there’s a skillset and insights that an agency isn’t going to have. 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah. We started roughly 10 or 11 years by hiring the first person that did content creation and mainly because we noted that we do a perfect installation, and then somebody comes along and puts on a piece of content and basically wrecks the solution because the most important part in communicating with the clients and addressing the purpose is that piece of content.

So if somebody’s going to create it, who doesn’t know how communication in-store devices works, ninety-nine out of a hundred times, it won’t be the right piece of content. 

Yeah, and you talked about Rituals and the serenity idea or vibe, so to speak, and if you had third-party agencies who just drop something in, it would be visually jarring potentially.

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, and we did a lot of communication for them. We created, and we worked together because they have an in-house agency too. Rituals are kind of a different story in that way. So we helped them in the beginning and now they’re creating a lot of the content themselves because they know how to do it and they have a really skilled team inside.

So that’s how we work too. Sometimes we start off and create content first and show the internal agencies or people how to do it and otherwise in some other cases, we keep on creating the content for them. But it’s so important because it is also for agencies that do generic commercials or socials, etc, creating content for this matter is totally different because there are so many factors that you have to think of. 

Dwell times, sight lines on and on.

Loek Wermenbol: Exactly. Position, lights, dwell time, passage time, angles, UXs, et cetera. Even the privacy of people, are we going to use a device when it’s tilted or does it need to be flat, etc. It’s all going to determine what your content looks like, and it is so important in the end to be successful with that solution and to have an ROI on that solution, and the content is a major part of that. 

There’s been a lot of noise in the last, I would say, six months in particular around Retail Media networks, and I was interested, we were at this conference in Munich, and I’ve heard or spoken with a couple of people, it’s all getting a little fuzzy to me after two days, talking about Retail media networks, incorporating third party advertising, programmatic advertising into a store, and that actually rattled me a little bit because it just didn’t seem right. 

I understand the idea of endemic advertising for brands that sell in the store, but do I really want to see a T-Mobile ad in a Ritual store? I know they wouldn’t do that, you know what I mean.

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, Retail Media is almost a buzz word right now, but we actually started operating our first Retail Media network for one of our clients already, I think, two or three years ago. 

And they’ve been around in some form for 25 years.

Loek Wermenbol: Yes, but in a serious form, it’s not that long. And of course, retailers are starting to know that, “Hey I can create a valuable position over here,” and brands like it too, because if you do it correctly and which is important, then it will be an added value for everybody involved. It will be an added value for the advertiser because it’s related to a product he can buy in the store…

…which encourages sales ideally. 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, it encourage sales, and of course, it is interesting for the operating party of the Retail Media network too. For instance, we do a big supermarket chain called in the Netherlands called,  Jumbo and they have almost a thousand outlets. We operate there in a Retail Media network with them but there’s always a keen balance between commercial messages and… 

It’s a slippery slope. You don’t want to feel like you’re on a highway. 

Loek Wermenbol: Definitely, if it’s too much, it won’t work. That’s one way of a Retail Media network. Related to products you can buy right in the store you are in or entering. The other one is we also have a big Retail Media network in Basic-Fit, and Basic-Fit is a large fitness chain in Europe with roughly 1400 outlets in Germany, France, and Spain, and they have a lot of screens inside too. 

Because of that, they have a special proposition, they’re on the low end of the market and they want to be able to operate clubs with one person to keep that cost low, and to get a low entry fee. 

Hence the name! 

Loek Wermenbol: But the funny part is that if you enter the club, all the products are really good, and it’s a really good training facility, but if you want to do so, you have to do a lot different, and it’s a lot of digitization within those store from training that you can do in a digital way and activate yourselves through all kind of other stuff, but also communicating with your clients, giving them maybe messages to motivate them or any health advice, but also just to inform you that maybe the shower is broken in the ladies room, for instance. 

But those screens are roughly around seven to eight in each club and of course, are really interesting for Retail Media too, because the target group that is coming into a sports club is pretty defined. If you know the proposition is on the low end of the markets, then you have real good statistics on demographics, which people are coming in. So that’s a perfect match, and a lot of advertisers, of course, are really interested in that target group and now have difficulty in reaching them, especially in the younger generation. So that’s also Retail Media.

So is that real money to Basic-Fit or is it a rounding error? 

Loek Wermenbol: Oh, it’s definitely real money. I can’t talk about figures, but it’s real money, and basically, they’re operating in two ways in operating Retail Media networks.

The first part is direct sales. There’s a team within the Basic-Fit commercial team from Retail Media that is in direct contact with big clients to sell time on the screens. But there will always be leftover inventory, and what we did, I think it’s one and a half years ago, we connected software that is able to connect on the backend to the big marketplaces the media companies use to buy their ads.

Like the Vistas and so on?

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, and they can directly tap into the system and buy leftover inventory.

And you could put the parameters in so that it’s not going to show a competitor on the screen with you?

Loek Wermenbol: Exactly. You can tailor it however you like. But it’s a really good way of not getting rid of your inventory but basically sell out your inventory.

Of course, it’s another price when you buy it in that way. It’s going to be cheaper than direct sales. But in direct sales, you have the best spots and the best time slots, and maybe you want to only advertise in a certain area or maybe in a certain country, etc. So that’s really interesting in Retail Media and it’s going to evolve. We are going to see more spots within environments that show Retail Media, and you were mentioning, Dave it’s strange when you see an ad for a wireless carrier or whatever in a retail store, and I think so too the market is really looking now, where are the edges of what we can and can’t do, in approaching and maximizing our revenues from Retail Media, and on the other hand, not breaking down our brand. Because those go hand in hand. 

You spoke a little bit about the return on the investment of display and all the technology in a store. How is that being measured? Because I’ve seen companies who do audience measurement and retail measurement and so on, talking about conversion ratios and so on, and I’m always a little skeptical about how accurate they can be.

Loek Wermenbol: This is a really good point because this is not the same for every solution. It really depends. 

Of course, we love to measure everything because that gives us insight, gives us data, and will help us improve. But mostly, If you do an installation with a combination of techniques that actually can set up a kind of a funnel, for instance, where you can measure that there are so many people in front of my solution and making use of that solution, and of those people, so many people do step two, maybe go and pick a piece of clothing out of a wall of jeans. And we can measure that because we have counters in the ceiling, we also can measure how many of those people go into the fitting room and actually try on something, and if we know they’re going into the fitting room, we can also measure if they come out and if they go to the cash desk, and if we do it like that, then we actually can create a funnel, and see what is happening, and not only see that happening but also tweak and improve. I mentioned the Rituals solution before, and I’m trying to visualize this in a verbal way. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture with all the perfumes on it, and rather than having to spray the perfume off a piece of paper and smell it. In front of all those perfumes, there are little glass cones, and you can pick those up, and beneath is a little piece that we impregnated with the fragrance. So if you pick it up, you can smell it. And the important thing to know is if you pick it up, we measure your pickup, so we know how many pickups there are of that piece. 

So you’ve got some sort of sensor embedded in there? 

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, it’s actually a light sensor that covers, and if you open it up, the content that is displayed when you pick up that specific color of glass, say I’m picking up perfume A, when I pick it up, on the display it will show the content of perfume A. But it’s layered content, so the longer I have this piece in my hands, the other types of content will be displaced, like an information funnel, but it also gives you the information that a certain person is more interested in this piece than somebody that puts it immediately down because maybe they didn’t like the fragrance and all that information gives us all that data, gives us information about that specific setup in that specific location because, of course, fragrances can differ in different areas, cities, countries, etc.

And it actually helps the divisional merchandisers to create a setup with the different perfumes on that piece of furniture that is matched perfectly with the audience they are serving at that point. Because we can use the pickup data, the content data, but also the data that is being generated by the cash desk, and if you combine those, then you have real information that will help. It’s going to be more difficult if you want to measure the success of a window display because there are a lot of factors in place.  Why somebody will come in or not, or why it’s busy in a high street or not, temperature or events… 

Yeah, you’d need some sort of a cookie on that person, otherwise, how do you track them?

Loek Wermenbol: Yeah, and then, of course, you have the tracking of people in general, and GDPR is a thing, so we have to take that into account in some cases.

Actually, we want to do really good management and measurements, and sometimes we can, but GDPR will limit us, and it’s not only the effective GDPR, but it’s also the perception of the user itself. It could be allowed by GDPR, but it is not received in a nice way by the customer because he feels monitored and on camera somewhere. So perception is really important to take into account, and if you use it, be open about it, and tell your customer about it.

Is it your software management platform, like in-house, or are you using a third party?

Loek Wermenbol: We actually do both. We have our software platform, and we keep on developing that, especially for certain clients with certain wishes. We tend to push the limits in the market, and often we look for things in software that just aren’t available in the market. But on the other hand, there are really good products in the market too. So we connect with certain platforms to make use of that. 

 I was curious because at a conference like this and everywhere I go and everything I get in by email, there are so many software companies who state that retail is their key vertical, and what you’ve been describing, it strikes me as it would be very difficult for a very brand sensitive and brand forward store, retailer to just go with a software company because they really need and has benefit from all that front end advice and the simple poking at them to say, “okay, why do you wanna do this?” 

Loek Wermenbol: The software is relevant for the client only if he is going to operate it by themselves. 

Basically, which probably doesn’t happen that much anymore.

Loek Wermenbol: No, of course, there’s a little bit more to it. And that is because the interface and the user-friendliness of that product will be relevant. But if you look at the other way around, in the end, what’s most important for the reader is whether will this be a successful integration in total, am I going to improve my customer journey, can I add more experience that is going to generate more sales for me? And it really doesn’t matter what kind of software does the job. It really doesn’t matter what kind of hardware does the job. That’s almost a commodity. It needs to be good, and for the AV integrator, you need to have those four-letter words together. It’s so important to keep those channels, have a good service proposition, and make sure those screens are always on 99.9% of the time, they sre energy saving, all that kind of stuff. 

But also in managing the content on the screen. It’s important, but it’s not the thing that matters most for the client and this industry tends to look more on the technology side and try to say to the clients that we have all of this. Yes, it’s important, but if you’re starting off with the wrong journey and the wrong question in the beginning, it really doesn’t matter that you have really good stuff.

If you’re selling on features and specs, you’re dead.

Last question, with retail, generally speaking, they want a business partner or service provider who’s going to take them right from ideation all the way through managed services and run the network for them?

Loek Wermenbol: Yes and no. I say no because they don’t always know that these kinds of offerings are available in the market, and if you don’t know that, then you’re not looking for it, and it’s getting a little bit better. But we try to really focus on that holistic approach and offering, so that we can basically help our clients on every level. We have specialists on every level. We have 125 different types of roles within our company, if you think about it with roughly 200 people in the company, that’s huge. 

We have specialists for every occasion. So if it’s about IT, we have specialists that can talk with the IT of the client. If it’s about strategy, we have strategists that can do that. If it’s about marketing or content strategy, we have those specialists. They don’t need to use every offering in our total portfolio. But we offer it, and at least in the end, if they don’t use it in our offering, we can talk with them on a high level about the specific topic then and help them anyway in that topic. I think that is really important as our business, especially retail, is transforming more in helping brands to communicate in the right way with the digital retail floor, and that’s why I said it, and it sounds a little bit strange, it’s more like an agency which is part of communication and knowing how to do that, and advising clients how to do that is super important. 

But we can only do that, and that’s important, maybe last words, if we have everything really good lined up in the backend. We have super good people to make those integrations, super good technicians, and we can tell a beautiful story, but in the end, if we can deliver what we promise to our clients in our first talks, we’re out of business. So that has to be perfect.

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