Digital Menu Board Basics

I’ve been involved with digital menu boards for well over 15 years now. During that time I have seen many problems and lots of bad mistakes in the industry, as many new industries experience.

In the beginning most of the problems were due to the lack of development of adequate hardware and software. However, there have been huge improvements in the software and hardware. The most significant improvements in hardware recently have been with the displays used outside in the drive-thru.

In the beginning some of the mistakes were so severe it resulted in bankruptcies for several suppliers. If fact, two of the leading digital signage suppliers doing business today have been bankrupt.

We also experienced problems due to the lack of experience and expertise in the industry as it was being developed. As suppliers gain experience these problems are being reduced.

Now that I expect to see most of these problems eliminated I still see some big mistakes being made. Although I can’t be sure, this time the mistakes seem to be made by the customers.

I was prompted to write this blog recently, after visiting some large chain restaurants to get photographs of various digital menu boards for a presentation I was giving on the subject.

I visited several restaurants each of three large international chains that had just rolled out significant quantities of indoor digital menu boards or were still in the process of rolling them out. Although I saw some really good systems I was shocked when I saw new digital menu boards installed in two of these chains that actually looked worse than the old boards they replaced. Naturally I get upset when I see this because it is not good for our industry. These mistakes slow the rate of conversion to digital boards. I also heard from a small chain recently that removed their digital menu boards because they said they did not work. I don’t know the details but this has happened before.

Evidently some people still have not yet learned that simply replacing old menu boards with digital menu boards that look the same and are used in the same way do nothing to increase sales. If you don’t take advantage of the many extra features of digital boards there is no use in switching. I’m writing this is hopes the members of our industry will get their act together soon and stop these mistakes.

However, it may not always be the digital menu board provider that’s the problem. I will give you an example.

In one of the large international chains I visited the content on the new digital menu boards did not look as good as the content on the old boards. Also, I could not see how they were using any of the new features of digital boards. They were the same as static boards. All the digital menu boards in all the other restaurants I saw at this chain in the US looked the same. The LCD screens were very dim and the colors were not bright and appetizing. However, the same chain had new digital menu boards installed in Great Britain that looked great! I could not believe the difference! What would cause that? I could make a guess based on my experience. One possibility is the US system was designed properly but someone wanted to reduce the cost so they lowered the quality of the displays.

Based on this experience and several others I have seen, I thought I should go through some of the basics I have learned. Following are some of the critical digital menu board basics:

  1. Proper menu board layout: Digital menu boards are still menu boards. They are not TV’s. All the things we have learned about proper menu board layout over the past half century still apply.
  2. Design system for Proper ROI: Digital menu boards are a valuable management tool restaurant operators can use to manage their restaurants better. Therefore you should be looking at the ROI on your total restaurant investment, not just the menu board investment. In order to do this you have to learn what the features are and how to use them. If you don’t know what they are there’s many ways you can find out. Speak to an expert. Don’t waste your time doing a test on ROI until you are operating your systems properly because it will make a huge difference.
  3. Don’t cut corners to save a few dollars: If the system you install can’t do what you need it to do you will waste your investment. At the very lease check out several installed systems and see how the graphics look before making a decision. The display makes a huge difference in making the food shots look appetizing.
  4. Make sure you include a service plan with your system: Most of the LCD display manufacturers have similar warranties. Typically they will replace a defective display with a new display if it is still under warranty and they will pay freight both ways. However, most won’t take down the old display and install the new display. I know one large one restaurant chain that got so frustrated with this they took out all their digital menu boards. You can get a service contract to have this done for just you. I just quoted one on 4-46″ displays for about $80 per month.

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