Always on: From malls to gas pumps, TVs are becoming a ubiquitous part of retail landscape


Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Judy Watten was having trouble concentrating on "The Call of the Wild.'' Dr. Phil kept interrupting her thoughts.

"It's frustrating as hell,'' said Watten, sitting inside a shopping center in Santa Rosa, Calif., with a copy of Jack London's classic in her hands.

"Do they not want us to read books?''

Above Watten, Dr. Phil's familiar visage beamed across a large flat-screen TV. The pop psychologist spoke about living one's beliefs, his words echoing the length of the mall where 20 TVs created a miasma of sight and sound.

The high-definition Samsungs represent the latest invasion of video into public places once considered off-limits to TV. Many grocery stores, airports, banks, elevators - even gasoline pumps - now broadcast programming mostly geared toward selling stuff.

Stung by technologies, such as TiVo and the Internet, which allow people to skip or ignore ads, marketers are bringing television directly to consumers in the places where they shop, lounge, bank or fill up, a trend some applaud and others go haywire over.

"It's unstoppable,'' said Simon Badinter, chairman and chief executive at the Medias & Regies Europe and North American unit of Publicis Groupe, the world's fourth-largest advertising company.

"I think people want to be entertained and clients want to reach shoppers at the point of sale.''

Publicis has partnered with the Simon Property Group, the nation's largest owner of shopping malls, to create the OnSpot Digital Network.

The network is aimed at getting people to pay attention to ads at the moment when they are most primed to make a purchase.

A 30-second commercial on an estimated 2,000 screens in 50 malls costs $350,000 a month, which likely rules out the possibility of local content. Sprinkled in with the ads are light features on fashion, entertainment and lifestyles.

The strategy appears to work: An Arbitron study found 41 percent of customers said they made unexpected purchases after hearing in-store messages.

"We got a very good feel from consumers embracing this technology,'' said Stewart Stockdale, Simon's chief marketing officer.

"Our primary focus is to enhance the shopping experience and the research was very positive.''

One might argue that TVs are a natural fit in malls, which already are meccas to advertising, some of it loud and garish. But as TVs creep into a wide array of public places, some consumers complain about sensory overload and unwanted advances from the digital world.

Older adults in general seemed less pleased with the new technology, compared with younger people who've grown up with video games, the Internet and iPods.

"There's nothing being forced down my throat,'' said Brian Elias, 20, eating lunch in a mall food court where six TVs stare down on diners.

"I'm pretty sure in 30 years the latest technology is going to bother me, too,'' said Zack Lyon, 21, who was seated at the same table.

At Albertson's grocery stores, large TVs loom over the produce and deli sections. Smaller, and much harder to ignore, screens are at each checkstand.

By 2011, 90 percent of retailers are expected to have in-store digital screens, according to the market-research company Frost & Sullivan. Ad revenue, in the meantime, is expected to reach $3.7 billion, up from $102 million in 2004.

Virginia Cargill, president and chief executive officer of SignStorey, a Connecticut-based company that offers programming in 1,300 grocery stores nationwide, said grocers so far have balked at placing TVs on aisles or in front of individual products, fearing that could turn customers away.

"That's why it's on the perimeter,'' she said.

"Anything that is added will be added after we get consumer reaction."

Ed Palmer, a professor of psychology at Davidson College in North Carolina, said companies are able to send text messages to customers as they walk past their stores, using GPS technology and previously collected information about their shopping habits.

His concern is that consumers are not being given enough time to reflect before making a purchase. He said his research into television's affect on children also revealed too much tube time can lead to mental health problems, including depression.

"It's an intrusion into my space,'' Palmer said. "I didn't ask for it. I didn't invite it. But it's there.''

Stockdale, however, said he's not worried the TVs in Simon properties will detract from what he referred to as the mall's "town square'' atmosphere.

"These loops last eight to 10 minutes,'' he said. "They're part of the environment. People will still do what they do.''

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