Gareth Easton for Muller

Innovation at the shelf edge

It’s been a challenging year for stores due to Covid-19, but some retailers have found time to innovate at the shelf edge with noteworthy technology deployments

Müller has created a game-changer in an area that has been in desperate need of innovation for years, according to Carol Hand, head of category in the yoghurt and desserts division at the dairy product behemoth.

She is referring to a shelf-edge Müller digital marketing display that went live in Asda stores across the UK at the end of November 2020.

The screens displaying the marketing content stretch above the top shelves along the aisles of 35 Asda stores in England, Scotland and Wales, creating what Hand describes as an “impactful” display – and one that was almost a year in the planning.

“Our digital fixture execution gives us the ability to constantly refresh the content while linking back to our above-the-line marketing campaigns,” she notes.

“It’s eye-catching, attention-grabbing and will inspire shoppers to explore what the entire category has to offer. When Müller grows, so does the category, so we’re confident this innovative partnership will drive overall category value.”

While the traditional non-digital cardboard brand advertising displays in stores are cost-effective, “it’s increasingly hard to stand out from the crowd”, according to Hand. This new approach, which has been adopted by several other brands in association with Asda, such as crisps maker Walkers, is viewed as the way forward in the right locations.

Müller’s deployment is a brand awareness play above the yoghurt aisle showing the latest Müller Corner TV advert. This content will be regularly updated to also feature core brands such as Müllerlight and Müller Rice.

Müller promotes its products on digital displays above the shelves in Asda stores

In addition, Asda’s Wakefield store has larger screens with changing imagery which currently highlight the variety of Müller Corner options available. The audiovisual technology, supplied by several companies including Shropshire-based Skratch, gives brands an opportunity to be more targeted in their marketing, with Müller saying it will monitor the performance of the new-style ads and tweak them throughout 2021.

The introduction of a more digital approach does not represent the end of cardboard point-of-sale marketing, though. Müller kick-started a year-long static point of sale (POS) aisle takeover across 233 Asda stores in October.

Digitisation brings benefits

Growing digitisation could bring several benefits to retailers and brands.

Bryan Roberts, retail consultant and analyst, and founder of Shopfloor Insights, says: “Cardboard signage is just wallpaper from a shopper perspective. Shopper marketers get very excited about cardboard on floor displays or wobblers, [but] I think it’s impractical from a replenishment point of view. The digital screens are more effective, eye-catching and dynamic, and from a retailer perspective, it’s controlled centrally, doesn’t require a specialist to replace things, and it’s more scalable because it’s largely or wholly vendor funded.”

There have been plenty of examples of in-store technology innovation in the UK grocery sector this year. The wider supermarket sector has also been experimenting with digitising loyalty schemes and introducing “scan and shop” services, the use of which has risen during the coronavirus pandemic. 

For example, Marks & Spencer recently announced it was arming staff in 200 stores with Honeywell devices, enabling them to take payment in the queue for shoppers with a small number of items.

In October, Asda installed 23,000 electronic price tags at its Stevenage store as part of a wider exploration of shelf-edge innovation. It also plans to test QR codes that can display allergen information or LEDs that flash when a home shopping picker enters an aisle to help them quickly locate items.

Asda’s RollBack strategy can be replicated using the tags, with the company saying the displays “made of e-Paper” can be changed centrally using cloud technology. Such functionality means whole areas of the store can receive price changes in minutes, reducing the workload on staff and maintaining pricing consistency.

The electronic shelf-edge label (eSEL) supplier, SES-imagotag, integrates its technology with the store’s Wi-Fi network, meaning additional tech infrastructure is not required at the Stevenage site to incorporate the new pricing labels. Panasonic also collaborated on the project, supporting Asda in defining the requirements, managing the installation and selecting the hardware used.

James Sands, project manager for innovation at Asda, says: “As one of the largest in-store trials of this technology, we want to understand how it interacts with our existing systems and where we’re able to enhance our in-store processes through the additional functionality eSELs offer.”

Benefits versus cost

The use of eSELs is commonplace in mainland Europe, which is partly a reflection of punitive regulations around incorrect pricing. Retailers face fines if they do not provide transparent, accurate and consistent pricing information.

But in UK retail, their use has been piecemeal. Tesco and Sainsbury’s are among those to have trialled it, along with electricals retail group Dixons Carphone and the Spar and Nisa convenience chains.

The now-dissolved children and baby goods brand Kiddicare used eSELs throughout its stores when Morrisons owned and operated the business.

At present in UK retail it is a case of smaller success stories amid a wider resistance to make what is a significant investment in the technology.

Earlier this year, a Kent-based franchise of the convenience chain Costcutter integrated eSELs with its central price management system. It says the Panasonic-implemented technology has provided an 80% time saving on label updates.

“Without the massive stick hanging over you about incorrect pricing, the carrot is enhanced efficiency and the ability to react to competitors at the click of a switch. Until the price of eSELs and back-office kit comes down significantly, it might not be a simple choice”
Bryan Roberts, Shopfloor Insights

Costcutter sends a pricing update to its stores every week, which typically results in between 30 and 100 price changes for this particular Culverstone Green store. This process typically took one staff member a full morning to update paper labels. On top of that, promotions are released every three weeks, adding to the price-change workload.

Centrally controlled from its in-store computer, Costcutter Culverstone Green can now complete this process much quicker. An added benefit, says store owner Peter Juty, is that staff are more confident working on the tills because they are less worried about discrepancies between the shop floor price and the till price.

“They can now spend additional time on the customers’ needs,” he adds. “The visual promotions have also influenced an increase in product purchases.”

On Valentine’s Day, for example, the electronic labels can display a photo of a love heart and a simple message to flag up the product as an ideal gift. “This was tested in another store and the result was an increase in turnover of up to 100% on such products,” Juty claims.

“The electronic shelf labels will provide us with a lot of flexibility and potential to market products around the year, and we look forward to seeing how this will impact our sales,” he adds.

Roy Horgan, UK and Ireland managing director of SES-imagotag, adds: “With hundreds of stores now fitted in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the time of electronic pricing and IoT [internet of things] for retail is finally coming.”

For Shopfloor Insights’ Roberts, although the benefits of eSELs are clear to see, there is still no incentive for wider roll-out any time soon.

“Without the massive stick hanging over you about incorrect pricing, the carrot is enhanced efficiency and the ability to react to competitors at the click of a switch,” he says. “Until the price of eSELs and back-office kit comes down significantly, it might not be that simple a choice.”

Despite 2020 having been a particularly challenging year for UK retail, the introduction of new technology continues – often in a test and learn capacity.

“For the first half of 2020, the grocers focused on availability and running the shop,” says Roberts. “But as we look at 2021, there might be a return to experimentation and exploration with in-store marketing and in-store efficiencies.”

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