Bernd Albl Of Germany’s Umdasch Outlines How A “Store Maker” Approaches On-Premise Digital Signage

August 15, 2023 by Dave Haynes

The Austrian firm Umdasch refers to itself as The Store Makers – designing, building and kitting out retail stores at scale both in Europe and globally.

About seven or eight years ago, the company looked at the shifting state of retail and realized that staying relevant meant adding digital to its toolset – a decision that’s played out nicely for the business unit, which is part of a much bigger holding company that is a global leader in construction – from office towers to single family homes.

I first met Bernd Albl earlier this year at ISE, knowing almost nothing about Umdasch and not a whole lot more about what the company refers to as shop-fitting. But after this podcast chat, I now know a whole lot more about the company and more broadly about the expectations, challenges and demands of properly designing and equipping retail in 2023.

We get into a lot of things, including defining experience in retail. We also have an interesting discussion about sustainability in retail – particularly a shift from doing store refreshes every five to seven years, to 10 years and longer. That’s driven mainly by demands to stop tossing out perfectly good wood, plastic and metal finishings to make way for new designs. One of the beauties of applying digital is its ability to refresh a store’s look and feel by changing files, not hard materials.

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Bernd, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me what Umdasch does and what it means by store makers? 

Bernd Albl: Okay, Dave. First of all, thanks for having me. Umdasch actually is a family-owned company within the History of Wealth brand for about 150 years. We are a shopfitting company, basically focused on the European market, and we are building stores in different areas, from fruit areas to grocery stores, the fashion industry, banks, automotive industry, all places.

We say we are businesses done, and we are around 2000 employees in our organization, and since around seven years, we established the business of digital retail because we saw that the business is completely shifting from the traditional millwork and handcraftmanship towards digital business and this is what Umdasch stands for, and our headquarters is in Austria, in Amstetten.

For people who don’t know Austria like me, where would you locate it? Is it by Vienna or somewhere else? 

Bernd Albl: Probably most of you might know of Munich, Salzburg, or Vienna, and Amstetten is in the middle between Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna, around one and a half hours away from Vienna towards Germany, in that direction. 

Umdasch is quite a big company. I think I saw the turnover is 1.5 billion Euros.

Bernd Albl: So, this is when you’re talking about the whole company. Umdasch is basically three company pillars. The biggest one is called Doka, which is a forworking company, and it is also established in the North American market. 

So, we always say that about every building is higher than 200 meters in the world is by 80% built by Umdasch Technology, and the second one is ours one, it’s the Umdasch store makes its shopfitting business, and the youngest group is Ventures, where we invest venture capital for disruptive technologies in the field of construction and in the field of retail technology. And in total, yes, we are doing around 1.5 billion euros turnover. 

So you’re pretty substantially backed in terms of your initiative. You’re anything but a startup.. 

Bernd Albl: Yes, that’s definitely right. 

When you say you are doing the build of stores, is that the build, including the whole actual physical building or when you’re talking about store makers or shop fitters, you’re talking about the interior?

Bernd Albl: It’s a very good question. The value chain in projects in the past, we usually were focused on the interior design, on the production of interior installation of interior shop fitting. But as I mentioned, as we are a big company, we are also building those big buildings with our technology. So our supply chain is moving in the direction of a very early stage of building. When it’s in the building phase where Umdasch comes in and that’s where we want to jump in and guide the customer from building to the interior, to the operating of the building as well as the stores.

So we are serving the customer of the whole supply chain and operating chain of buildings, basically not just focused on shop fitting. 

When you mentioned that the digital end of this was started about seven years ago. Was that the result of seeing an opportunity or because the retail industry and the requirements and ask of the retail customers was to incorporate this in there, so you had to add this?

Bernd Albl: Honestly, some years ago, we had very tough times in shop fitting. We had losses at the end of the year, and we have seen that with the rise of standard online shopping, we are faced with a very big shift of how customers are shopping in the future.

And this brought us in real trouble some years ago, and we were faced with the decision, what should we do? Should we run away, or should we jump into this new topic, integrate and develop our core business? And this is what we have done, and about it was eight years ago we sat together and said which technology should we start in terms of retail technology because there are so many technologies in the market, but what should be the first step for Umdasch which customers and retailers believe that we can deliver? And the second aspect was how we can handle the shift of parroting within our employees. Because some of them were afraid as they know that online shopping and digital technologies are our enemies and core business, and now we want to bring them into our core organization.

And therefore, we figured out two technologies at the beginning. The first was digital signage to replace a poster price screen, and the second one was electronic shelf labeling, it’s the price tag on the shelf. With those two technologies, we started the digital initiatives within the Umdasch group in terms of retail and where we started the shift of paradigm and the shift of the whole organization towards getting more and more digital,

That’s not an easy shift to make for a more traditionally focused company. Is it? A lot of training, a lot of education. 

Bernd Albl: That’s right. On the one hand, we have definitely shown our employees the chance we have. On the other hand, yes, we have to convince them and train them how to integrate screens. It sounds very simple when you say just implement a screen but honestly, mistakes in the implementation of hardware are still done. When you look through stores in the market, air circulation maintenance, possibilities and all those things and we are not focused on one single store project. We are focused on rollouts where we built thousands of stores and there you have to really exactly plan how you implement this. Because if you don’t do this very carefully and you have any troubles, for example, with air circulation and you have snack work afterwards and you have to make changes then it costs a lot of money.

So therefore we have to create the knowledge of our technical designers when they are designing the furniture and the stores. And there are many other aspects where we teach them how to implement this and not just in terms of digital signage but also in terms of electronic shelf labeling, and I would say it’s booming since Corona, where we have seen many of the big retail chains there, which are investing hundreds of millions of dollars and euros. For example, Walmart, as you might  know, had decided to implement electronic shelf labels in the North American market.

There is a few million hundred dollar project which is currently started. They have to exactly plan how to implement those simple little looking electronic shelf labels on the shelf edge. That it’s not falling down, that it’s not stolen, doesn’t get broken et cetera, and that the appearance of the whole shelf is still working as soon as an electronic shelf labeling is put in front of the product on the shelf edge.

And there could be a real disconnect between building engineers and pure interior design teams with the technology that then has to go in. I’ve heard of and seen endless cases of why did they do that? And why didn’t these folks talk to each other? So if you can keep that all within one business entity doing all that planning then you don’t get those disconnects, right? 

Bernd Albl: Definitely, and this was one reason why we have merged different departments within Umdasch together where we have brought together, for example, in Duisburg in Germany, we have built it up a new office where we brought together all the interior designers together with our digital retail designers, where the digital storytelling comes together with the shop fitting design, storytelling i would say, that you definitely see the red line through the customer experience when it’s designed. And this was one of the mistakes we also made in the past, that we separated those teams that we said, ’okay let’s plan the store, and afterwards we plan the digital applications’.

But, we instantly saw that it’s not working, because the harmony and the whole concept wasn’t given, therefore it’s very necessary that as soon as and in the very early stage of the project, both competencies in the organization are working on the project and start communicating instantly together with the customer to realize shop fitting journeys of the customer which are working. 

I don’t know your business, but I assume for a more traditional shop fitting a company as part of a larger team that’s doing any number of things, and you become a contractor to a larger project, whereas with this I’m getting the sense that you guys start right at the strategy stage and carry on through the project execution, and I’m wondering, do you also do aftercare, are you doing managed services where you’re managing the digital signage component of the the retail network?

Bernd Albl: Definitely this is something you have to provide in terms of digital installation, as many other full service integrators we were serving in a very early stage from the concept until software development and installation. Also, operating means content creation, hosting onsite services et cetera. But, what we have seen in combination with shop fitting, we have seen that those competencies which we already have in terms of digital are asked in the future from shop fitters. That means that the retailer wants to have a single point of contact, the kind of support hotline for shop fitting topics.

If he needs other shelves, or if he needs when something’s broken, or if he needs extra components. He doesn’t want to contact different points within the organization. He wants to have one single point of contact, and we have also faced the topic of SLAs within shop fitting, so that we have to react within a certain period of time and fix the problem onsite.

Why? Because, the furniture which will be produced in the near future, will get smarter and sensors will be implemented. And as soon as you have technical and electronic components within the traditional shop fitting environment you need those services, maintenance and operating services for customers.

One easy topic is, for example, the cash desk. 

Right. When you’re talking about sensors, that’s something you could do right now, but is it a case of the sensor technology and the thinking behind all of that needs to just mature a bit more so that it’s fully integrated as opposed to something you add on.

Bernd Albl: First of all, yes, some installations we are doing are stupid ones, which are not reacting based on sensors. Yes, we definitely see that trend on the market. The sensors will be unable to allow the retail to get more flexible, to get more target oriented to decrease the loss by improper communication to customers when it comes to digital signage, for example, where there is the combination of sensors when you use it for audience measurement and smart targeting.

And we have seen sensors, weight sensors, light sensors, out of shelf sensors, however in terms of loitering, in terms of queue management where we see that the different kinds of sensors are getting more and more popular. And everything that pays in for the retailer to optimize processes because all of them have stuff topics that they don’t find the stuff they need on the shop floor, so we have to help them to optimize the process costs and reduce the effort for the staff they have on the shop floor. And the other thing is to increase the shop experience for the customer, and sensors will definitely be one of the hot topics for the near future, and this is why you are seeing when you look on the signage market or on other retail technology markets that camera sensors, optical sensors and the radar sensors are getting more and more required from integrators and asked by retailers for smart solutions.

And when you’re using things like audience measurement technologies, whether it’s camera base, radar base, whatever it may be. What are they looking to get out of that? Are they just trying to understand how the store works or are they trying to do almost personalized, one-to-one messaging to shoppers as they come within a quote unquote a strike zone. 

Bernd Albl: As I mentioned, one thing is definitely to optimize the one-to-one communication to the customer that you send the right message to the right customer. Let’s say, if he is a male customer in the age between 25 and 35, that we play out the right playlist when he’s looking on the screen first of all.

Therefore, optimizing the one-to-one communication to the customer, and the other thing is we are using the sensors for reducing process costs for the retailer. For example, one of the hot topics currently is off the shelf management or expired date management, this is something everybody’s working on, how they can support the retailer to reduce those process costs for him.

And those are the most important two areas where sensors are currently asked for and audience measurement, for example, as I mentioned, there is one use case where you can use a sensor. 

Let’s talk about some of the trends you’re talking about. I was reading through some Umdasch material as well as some interviews, and one of the areas that was mentioned as a trend is individualization. What do you mean by that? 

Bernd Albl: We definitely see that many brands are closing their stores. Many are reducing the number of stores they have in the field, and they want to increase the customer experience when they’re entering the store, and one big criteria is how to hold the customer as long as possible in the store and to increase his basket to create a high level of individualization for him. Individualization means that we show the right information to him to give in an atmosphere and ambient design where he feels convenient and also we compare a little bit when you go online shopping or when you go on websites due to cookies and other trackers, it’s very easy to flexibly create the web information based on your requirements, and this is something the customer has used and is standard for him and this is in some kind we try to transform those flexibility of experience rooms to the real store. That means that we want to play out the right stores, that we send the right push notification on the mobile application for his checkout devices that we probably play the right sounds due to the audience which is inside the store, that the influence is light based on the outside ambient, and there are so many possibilities on the turntable. You can increase or decrease to create an more and more individualized experience for the shopper.

Right. You mentioned experience several times. How do you define experience in a retail environment? And I’m also curious how the retailers define that when it comes to applying digital. 

Bernd Albl: This is a very good question. Honestly, some of our retailers don’t know it exactly by themselves and this is something when we are working on a concept, what we evaluate together and one starting point is definitely the brand itself, the values of the brand. The atmosphere that the brand wants to communicate, that they want to transport and what are the visions and what is the reason for the store? 

What is the offering of the store and what is the message of the store? And as soon as you have answered all those different questions, you can create the storytelling around that. At the end, this creates the experience and from the consulting, our experts are using the right materials, they’re choosing the right colors and the right light atmosphere.

We bring in the right technologies, the right touch points as soon as we have defined together with the customer the right use cases. By the way, this is one of the big mistakes many retailers are making over the concepts. First of all, they’re thinking how many screens to be installed? Where should we place a screen? But they don’t think about the real use behind the benefit of the touchpoint, and this is the way we create digital touchpoints. First of all, we say what benefit we wanna create.

Then, we look at the area of the story which we want to offer and technology is the last point of the whole story. And all this together, is the key of success, and we call it already experienced stores to bring them alive. And I want to add one more thing is we always have to keep in mind when we create those stores that we have to think mid or long term in terms of operation. Most of our customers want to have the most fancy store possible, but we have to think what is in three years, what is in five years with the store.

We also have to keep in mind how we can run the store, how we can operate, how we can keep this level of experience up for the next year, not just for one year. And this is also a very important point when you start designing an experience store for retailers and customers. 

Yeah, they have to think about a five to seven-year creative budget, that’s gonna be refreshed steadily, and they have to think about technology that’s somewhat future-proofed and isn’t gonna look old in five years. 

Bernd Albl: You’re talking about five to seven years. Honestly in Europe, I don’t know what’s happening in North America and Canada.

We are faced with the topic that our stores have to last for the next 10 to 12 years, we are asked by the retailers. This is a very hot topic currently due to sustainability and ESG, that we have to develop stores that last much longer. So therefore, we as a shop fitter have to rethink our business model because it’s definitely right what you’re seeing, but in the past we have designed stores about every five to seven years at that time, and about 20 years in pharmacy stores. But in the near future, I think within the next three years we have to have concepts ready that enable us to realize concepts that are economically beneficial for a shop fitter to create stores that last more than 10 years. One of those things could be operating and digital services you provide and this is one of the big challenges for shop fitters in Europe they have currently faced and I think it’s a very positive challenge because it has to be done.

And this has to primarily do with waste material at the end of that five to seven years that you’re throwing out all the wooden cabinets, the metal work, the plastic and everything and refreshing the whole look of the store, and therefore you’re filling a landfill site with all this old retail design material.

Bernd Albl: Exactly. All those topics you have mentioned are paying into this topic and the big challenges we have is, for example, Nike is one of our big customers in Europe. They’re using used materials already, and we definitely see in the design process that the demand for used and refurbished materials is getting high. The quality is not there yet, what is expected by the retailer is that it lasts for a certain period of time. But the trend is definitely going in that direction, and that’s the reason why we have implemented at the EuroShop this year, a sustainability database within our organization where we do a lot of research for refurbished materials, how long they last, how you can use them in shop fitting, and therefore we are currently investing a lot of money and time to create the knowledge you need and to fulfill this demand, which is definitely increasing over the next two to three years.

You mentioned Nike. And as one of your main clients, there seems to be two kinds of tracks in retail design lately when it comes to digital, there are stores like Nike’s and other particularly athletic apparel kinds of retailers where they, as well as fast fashion, where the stores are just visually noisy. There’s all this digital going on, and that’s it’s very much digital forward, and then the other track, particularly in luxury retail is, it’s very minimalistic where there’s digital integrated in there, but it’s definitely not in your face. It has a very distinct purpose and kind of blends in with the overall design. Is that what you’re seeing?

Bernd Albl: Yes, this is something that we can underline. Unfortunately, we are not doing the digital installations for Nike. But this is definitely a goal that we are heading towards…

To calm them down?

Bernd Albl: I would say digital has a very major part of the storytelling of those stores. When you look at night towns, for example, it’s for the whole experience, digital applications also enable the retailer to entertain a big number of customers on the shop floor.

When we come to luxury stores where you have a limited number of customers on the shop floor, at the same time, you’re focused more and more on the one-to-one communication from staff to the customer. And, there is also much more to the product, the real product in the center of the storytelling.

And they’re much more focused on the materials they’re using for shop fitting. And the luxury feeling and being luxury doesn’t mean to be digital. That’s the reason why we don’t see too many digital applications at luxury stores. They are more minimalized there, because the product is in the front and especially the staff is in the front. 

They’re in there for the product, not just attracted by the shiny lights. 

Bernd Albl: That’s right. 

What does digital represent for the shop fitting side of Umdasch’s business? I think I saw something saying, it used to be maybe 10%, but now it’s roughly half.

Bernd Albl: No. I would laugh that it would be half. My boss always says, Bernd, you have to do at least 50% of our total turnover to be digital. Probably in the future. Yes. Definitely. This is something where we see the trend because digital services are also getting into traditional shop fitting applications.

Bernd Albl: Currently, we’re doing around 10 to 15% of our total turnover number digitally. 

And are you primarily operating in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, or I assume that some customers take you all over the world with the projects. 

Bernd Albl: This is a strategy we have within the whole organization of Umdasch. With the shopfitting department we are doing business basically in the whole Europe, in the Middle East, in Turkey and in some areas of North Africa. And, we say in those areas where we are actively doing business. 

Last question. If I was traveling through Europe and asked you, okay, I’d love to see one of your stores where you’ve guided the project and deployed and is a reference case you can talk about. Where would you send me or somebody else to go look? 

Bernd Albl: When you fly over from Canada to Europe, I would say let’s make a pit stop in London and go to Harrods. So, we are currently rebuilding Harrods back to its 1920s.

Oh, wow. Interesting. I’ll be in London in mid-September, so I’ll have to pop by Harrods. Take a Trip to Knightsbridge. 

Bernd Albl: Perfect. But give me a ring. I will come over there and let’s go there together.

Alright Bernd. Thank you very much for spending the time with me.

Bernd Albl: Thanks for having me and all the best to Canada.

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