A brief history of digital retail signage

18 Sep 2019

For thousands of years, we have been using signs to guide us. Signs that inform us where to go, what to do and how to behave. 

In the ages before technology was even a concept, settlers would use the means available to them to create these signs - making etchings in stone walls and even bending trees in certain ways to point travellers in the right direction. 

Fast forward a few thousand years, however, and the development of the car necessitated a paradigm shift in the way signage was used. The next major step was obvious - advertising and monetisation.

Analogue vs digital

Whilst neon signs were popular from the tail end of the 1920s onwards, neon was expensive and few smaller retailers were able to afford such an extravagance. 

By the 1980s and 90s, meanwhile, it was becoming more and more common to see retailers utilising primitive moving signage by using VHS tapes and monitors to create more interesting branding and retail signage possibilities. 

This was still very much an ‘analogue’ system, but when VHS tapes gave way to DVD and then DVD to the convenience of computer-driven media players that could stream content directly to the device, digital signage was finally able to emerge on the retail stage. 

This was a platform that offered the potential for real-time updates and was significantly more reliable than the old VHS tapes and monitors. But I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

The birth of digital signage

The legend goes that the actual ‘digital signage’ term that is industry standard today was first coined by a  security guard as a UK shopping centre in the early 1990s. This was allegedly overheard by SIS Digital head honcho Neil Longuet-Higgins, who helped to popularise the phrase over the next few years.

This was all happening (quite fortuitously) around the same time that LED displays were starting to become more affordable. These are screens that emit images using many small diodes. In addition, this technology has been used for decades in digital clocks. 

It wasn’t until around the turn of the century, however, that the technology was streamlined and perfected to the degree that the displays started to be mounted into flat panels that were easier to mount both on our walls at home as televisions and in stores as digital retail signage.

Computer love

As we’ve already mentioned, whilst it was gaining in popularity throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, digital signage as a concept didn’t really begin to make a substantial impact on the retail world until computer-based media players were able to deliver the kind of dynamic content that retailers desired. 

Whether a store decided to utilise outdoor LED screens to draw in consumers or large format displays to promote their brand to a wider market, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, digital signage had fully integrated with the retail world as the options and flexibility of the format increased. 

The present and future of digital retail signage

With digital signage becoming commonplace in retail establishments across the world and smartphones making our lives that much more convenient and tactile, many retailers began experimenting with touchscreen technology and displays that were able to sync with their social media accounts and offer bold new experiences. 

Live streaming of content over 5G is also something that might be possible in the immediate future.

Today the global digital display market is forecast to grow by 15% in 2019 alone, which means digital retail signage is certainly not going anywhere anytime soon. 

That’s why it’s absolutely vital that the retailers that wish to remain competitive step up and embrace the digital signage revolution that’s been slowly building and maturing for years. 

Digital signage is the perfect way to hybridise the digital and physical presence of your brand and provide consumers with a unified and flexible interaction. Samsung has suggested that 84% of UK retailers believe that digital signage is crucial for brand awareness. 

Modern digital signage offers both the flexibility and accessibility of digital and the personal touch of in-store customer service - a true omni-channel platform.

The history of signage has been a long one, but the history of digital signage has been short indeed. In fact, it’s only just begun. So, now might be the very best time to get on board before the train leaves the station.

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