New Digital Signage Companies

Two weeks ago I attended a digital signage boot camp in Chicago put on by Ingram Micro. Several of the key suppliers were there to introduce their latest products. I have attended several of these in the last couple of years because I find them a great way to keep up with what’s going on and all the new products being developed for the industry. The industry leaders have been reporting that there are a lot of new companies entering the digital signage business and that’s what I have been observing at these boot camps and other conferences. Most of the re-sellers there came from the IT or audio/video industry and were new to digital signage.

Being new to digital signage did not seem to slow down most of these companies. I was very impressed with the number of projects they were selling and how creative they were. I have been in the digital signage industry for a long time but I still learned a lot from the new guys. I have always thought it really helps to be creative to sell digital signage and I’m now seeing proof of that. They seem to start out selling small projects in creative ways and then growing to larger projects as they gain experience. I think this is a solid way to start. I read a post from an industry expert recently that stated “some times you have to break some rules to be successful”. Maybe he is right. Many of these guys haven’t even learned the rules yet, but that does not seem to be slowing them down.

How to Survive in A Down Economy

In my last blog I commented on how our poor economy was slowing down implementation of new technologies such as digital menu boards. I received a lot of comments about that from friends in my industry and we discussed how to keep going in this economy. Following are some of the comments and advice I received:

1. Stay small and flexible. Keep up with what’s going on in your markets to determine the current and future needs of your customers. Keep up with new technologies that could replace one or more of your product lines or offer you a new product line. New technology is spawning new products very quickly. Gone are the days when you could ride a “cash cow” product line for decades. You may consider outsourcing operations and skills that require large investments and long payback periods. Avoid being stuck with expensive product lines that could be replaced very quickly with new technology.

2. Focus on your strengths Do what you do best. You have to keep developing new products and improving existing products to stay competitive, but be careful about spreading out too quickly into areas outside your area of expertise.

3. Go where the business is. I had a very difficult time with this issue. Having spent a lot of time and money developing and selling digital menu boards to the large Quick Serve Restaurant chains makes it very difficult for me to stop. However, that’s not where the business is at this time. Most digital menu boards are being purchased by small chains and new start up concepts. So, I will concentrate on that area of the market until the large chains start adopting the new technology.

4. When you do sell a new technology project, especially a large one, make sure you do it right. You and your customer will lose big time if you don’t. Unfortunately, I know of many sad examples where this rule was not followed. A major reason for delays in the adoption of digital menu boards and digital signage is the many failures we have experienced in the past. I am encouraged by the fact that these failures have become much less frequent.

When Will Our Economy Improve?

Many of us have been working hard on the development of digital menu boards (and digital signage) and investing capital for several years because we believe they are valuable marketing/merchandising tools. Now that the products have been developed and ready for implementation it’s very frustrating to learn that their use is being delayed because of the bad economy and the lack of capital. This is only one small example. The same is true of many other hard working people and the exciting new products they develop. What’s even more frustrating is the realization that this economic mess is brought upon us by the public’s inability to elect competent leaders to lead this country. Instead of electing capable and moral leaders we elect the most skilled politicians whose only ambition is to keep getting re-elected once they are in office. In the business world if corporate leaders don’t perform they get replaced. How much damage does our country have to suffer before people wake up and start electing capable leaders?

Digital Menu Boards VS Computers

To begin I would like to state I am not stupid enough to believe the development of digital menu boards or digital signs are nearly as important as the development of computers. However, I do believe it is valid to make some comparisons.

If you are old enough to remember when personal computers first became available you know it took a long time for most people to start using them, even in business. In the beginning we were told the primary benefit was to save time and reduce cost. What we later learned was they did not save time. Instead, they greatly increased our individual capability, capacity and quality of work. They allowed us to do much more, more quickly and more accurately. Computers allowed us to do many things we could not do without them. I delayed using them because it seemed like too much work to download the data and get the programs set up. Today I don’t think we could survive without personal computers. Try taking them away and see what happens.

I can remember a few years ago when every executive had a secretary, now there are very few. As an example, it would take me all day working with my secretary and several other people to get a large proposal or important document composed, typed and ready to be delivered by overnight service to a customer. I can do the same thing today by myself, do it better and have it delivered in a matter of minutes.

Now let’s compare personal computers to digital menu boards. Think about how much time and how many people it takes for a restaurant chain to make changes to the content in a traditional menu board system and have it displayed properly in the restaurants. It takes several weeks or a couple months. With digital menu boards it takes a matter of hours. One person can do it easily, better and the content is more effective. Consider how much more you can do with digital menu boards than with traditional boards. I won’t list them here but the list is long. These are features you can compare with computers.

A true test of the value of a new technology is to see what would happen if you take it away after people have used it long enough to utilize its full capabilities and have them switch back to the old technology. Consider what would happen if you took away personal computers today. It would be a disaster. Although it would still be difficult to find someone utilizing the full capabilities of digital menu boards, how do you think they would react if they had to switch back to the old technology? Although I would say McDonald’s has not used their digital menu boards long enough to utilize their full capabilities, it is the best example I can think of. Ask their management how they would feel about replacing the digital boards in their McCafe units with the old menu board technology. It would be a huge problem.

I believe digital menu boards will eventually replace all the old boards and many new capabilities will continue to be developed and utilized.

Are Digital Menu Boards Really That Complicated?

We all know there’s a lot of differences between digital menu boards and traditional menu boards. They are new and there’s a lot to learn, but are they really that much more complicated? Have you ever noticed how some of us like to make new technology seem more complicated than it really is and then try to convince our prospective customers that we are the only ones that can do it right? I’ll give you some examples of this I have experienced.

Several years ago I accepted a consulting job to help a digital signage company design a digital menu board system for one of the large Quick Serve Restaurant chains. After all the design work was completed and prototypes were produced we had our big opportunity to present our system to the prospective customer in their corporate office. We show up with a team of about 6 people (our first mistake) including the CEO . The prospect had about the same number of people, mostly marketing people. After all the introductions the CEO (an engineer) turned the meeting over to his sales/engineer to explain the features and show how the system worked. I thought the presentation was much more technical than it needed to be and a few minutes later I was convinced of this when I saw the eyes of the marketing people start to glass over as they lost interest. All they really wanted to hear was “What will this do for me?” and a little about how to operate it. After the presentation we installed our prototype in a mock up restaurant and gave some demonstrations.

There were some other minor mistakes that are normal for a project like this, but overall the team made it seem much more complicated than it actually was. As a result instead of receiving an order the prospect decided to upgrade their old menu boards instead of going with new digital menu boards because they thought they were too complicated and expensive. About a year later I saw the exact same thing happen with another major quick serve chain. Just recently I lost an order for approximately 400 digital drive-thru menu boards, primarily because my competition convinced them the boards were too complicated.

My point in this blog is that new technology can be difficult for people just because it is new and they have to do things differently. They are usually a little nervous about making the switch anyway. We definitely don’t want to make it seem more difficult or complicated than it is when actually it is much easier. The major reasons to purchase the equipment is ease of use and dramatically increased capabilities.


What’s Happening in the Digital Menu Board Industry?

I have heard many rumors, read news articles and press releases about major deals being made in the digital menu board industry. I also set up my Google Alerts to “Digital Menu Boards” so I receive all the web news on the subject. It seems like every day I read about some company switching to digital menu boards and they talk about why they selected their supplier. So, since I predicted many large chains would be switching to digital menu boards soon, and I want to prove myself right, I have been doing a lot of research on the subject.

I have many friends in the industry and when I discuss these events with them I find the facts to be a lot less “exciting” than what I read. We all know how these stories get started. As an example, I have read articles where someone states they have been selected as the digital menu board supplier for a major chain and they lead you to believe they are doing a major roll out. When I do the research I learn they received an order from a franchisee in that chain for a few of their sites to test. Although I consider this to be good news, I have found little evidence that my prediction has come true.

Most of the people I know in the industry stated their digital menu board business dropped during the downturn in the economy but has recently picked up. However, almost all of the business has been from small chains or single unit operators. Also, many of the new start up chains are using digital menu boards and that makes a lot of sense. They don’t have the huge investment in their current menu board programs they would need to replace. It makes sense to them to start out with digital boards rather than switching later. On the bad news side, one of the start up chains started out with digital menu boards and stopped using them. I have not yet learned why. Some of the large chains are using more digital menu boards in Europe and Asia than they are here but when people read about it they think it includes the U.S.

It’s much more difficult to get information directly from the large chains about large scale commitments they have made because they tend to want to keep it quiet. I have heard recent rumors that 2 or 3 of the major QSR chains (I can’t mention any names) have made some commitments but it’s not for system roll outs. Typically it’s only for new corporate sites and a few of the new franchisee owned sites.  I still believe my prediction will come true but I’m still waiting.

Are all digital menu boards the same?

In the past few months I have attended several major trade shows to see what’s new and visit with my friendly competitors to see how they are doing. I know almost all my competitors and have many good friends in the industry (digital menu boards). I learned several things but one stood out more than the others.

Everyone wants to be unique and we all promote our product differences and unique advantages to set us apart from our competitors. That was easy to do with the old traditional boards because we all had slightly different manufacturing methods, methods of displaying the content and unique designs. The boards were designed and built from scratch and so we could use our design and manufacturing advantages to set our products apart.

This is much more difficult to do with digital menu boards because the hardware is much more generic. When I walk down the show aisles all the digital boards look exactly the same to me. The only noticeable differences are in the content. However, every supplier promotes their unique differences and advantages. A great example of this is one supplier offered a choice of decorative frames that could be placed over the LCD display to make it look different. If you are a prospective customer you have to ask yourself  “How can they all be different and all be the best?”

The answer is there is very little difference, if any, between each supplier’s digital boards. There are slight differences in the quality of the displays used, features of the software, capabilities of the players and ease of use, but all suppliers have access to the same or equal components and can assemble the components any way the customer wants.  The only real difference is the capability of the supplier to assemble these components in manner that best meets the customer’s needs and provide the best service.


Digital menu board basics

Digital menu board basics
by Scott Sharon * • 24 Nov 2008
Part 1 of 4

One of the first questions I receive when discussing digital menu
boards is “what’s the ROI?” Although it’s the most important
question to ask before making any large purchase or investment
in equipment, it’s not easy to answer. Your ROI depends on how
the equipment is used. In this article, I will give some examples
of how digital menu boards can be used that may make the ROI question easier to
Since digital boards have so many more capabilities than traditional boards, a better
question should be “what’s the ROI on the additional capabilities?”
Menu boards are the primary tool used to communicate with your customers in your
restaurant. Digital allows you to do that more effectively, more quickly, more often,
easier and at a lower graphics cost.
To understand the difference in cost between traditional and digital menu boards you
should determine the total cost of ownership of each system over at least a five year
period. The cost of each should include all hardware, content (including packaging,
distribution, freight and labor to change or insert in the boards), software, connection
cost and maintenance.
If you determine the cost of digital boards to be higher, is it worth the extra investment
for the increased features and capabilities? If you don’t use the extra capabilities to
increase short and long term sales the answer is simply no. In order to answer this
question you need to know the capabilities of digital boards and how to use them.
There are many advantages for digital menu boards over static ones. How much would
each of these aspects increase your sales?
Day parting
• There are no limits to the number of day parts you can use.
• All the information on your boards can be relevant for any day part or condition. Only
the items for sale when the customer is viewing the boards will be seen. This can vary
by region or individual location.
• You can change the look of your board for each day part. Certain colors, designs and
fonts look more appetizing in different day parts.
• Could have menu variations based on regions.
Better product promotion
• Digital boards or kiosks can up sell better than your employees.
• Make higher margin items stand out with movement.
• New products can be introduced much more quickly & effectively. Plus, it will be
easier and less expensive to do it by regions or test markets.
Instant changing of content
• Prices can be changed more quickly and easily based on cost and supply. Prices can
be different for each day part. Many companies have learned they can charge more and
offer different portion sizes for each day part?
• Prices can be lower during low traffic times of the day to increase the effectiveness of
store capacity and to reduce wasted food.
• Items for sale could change quickly and more effectively based on weather conditions,
inventory, season, holidays and current events.
Appeal to customers
• Eliminating all paper and plastic graphics would improve your ”go green” initiative.
• Increased capability and lower cost to do local promotions for local sports teams and
events to increase sales and promote restaurants as members of the neighborhood.
• Could have bilingual content in areas with a high percentage of non-English speaking
• You can use motion to attract attention and increase retention.
• Can reduce the actual, or more importantly, the perceived wait time.
• Can add other senses such as sound or scent to stimulate the appetite.
Part 2
Can you use digital boards to build or improve your brand?

Your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what
they can expect from your products and services, and it
differentiates your offering from your competitor's. Your brand is
derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be. Is
your brand promise resonating with consumers? In other words, does the customer
experience equal their expectation?
If you are the innovative maverick in your industry your customers should see you that
way. Keep in mind you can't be all things to all people. Who you are should be based
on what your target customers want you to be. You should be who you want to be vs.
who you are in the eyes of your customers and potential customers. A marketer’s job is
to create and build brand identity, not just to sell products. How well you do that will
have a positive or negative affect on sales now and in the future. Your image should
represent what the brand stands for and imply a promise to customers.
What is your plan to drive traffic and build your brand?

First, do your research to identify what habits, perceptions or beliefs your customers
have of the brand and develop a plan to build, change or reinforce them today. It
usually takes one to three years to show significant results.
Review the visual aspects of your brand first. Does the look and feel of your
promotional materials accurately and effectively reflect your brand? It's difficult to sell a
high-quality product with homemade-looking marketing materials. In the mind of
consumers, quality materials equal quality product. Digital menu boards will show your
customers you are innovative and up to date with technology. They also make it easier
to make the changes you learn from your research.
Here is an example:
Several years ago one of the major restaurant brands asked me to review one of their
prototype restaurants where they made some significant interior design changes. The
first thing I noticed when I entered the restaurant was the increased amount of
graphics and images inside. They even added some soffits to increase the space for
graphics. Although everything was very nicely done it simply did not work. Too many
graphics and too much information simply increase clutter, create confusion and cause
your customers to tune it all out.
Approximately five years later the same brand asked me to review a new prototype
restaurant with all digital menu boards. The difference was so dramatic it shocked me.
All graphic clutter was removed and everything was placed on the digital boards. It
made a significant improvement in the perception customers had when they entered
the restaurant and made the graphics and information much more effective.
If you feel your design is ineffective or out-of-date, consider updating it by retaining
key design elements that still work, while shedding those that don't. The key is to make
your brand look current without losing its original appeal, and thus customers.
Ensure all pricing, ordering information, product lists and product specs are up-to-date.
Delete anything no longer relevant or accurate. If you're advertising on the internet,
make sure there are no elapsed limited-time offers being advertised. This is especially
important when using affiliate advertising. Often affiliates will use old ads and/or links
to offers no longer valid. This not only confuses and aggravates consumers, but also
reflects negatively on your brand.
Digital menu board design criteria
To make effective use of the extra capabilities of digital menu boards you must first
understand how your customers use menu boards. You should have a different strategy
for indoor and drive-thru boards. Although the same customers may alternate use of
indoor and drive-thru service they will have different needs for each.
Design the menu boards to fit your customer’s needs. At the drive-thru speed of service
and convenience is very important without making customers feel rushed. Service and
communication is more important for the indoor boards. Perceived wait time is very
important. If you can occupy your customers while they are in line the perceived wait
time is much less and it improves your customer’s experience.
Research will likely show most of your customers know what they want before they see
your menu board (that number may be slightly lower inside than in the drive-thru).
Plus, the more information you have in the order area the more confusion it causes and
it decreases the likelihood any of it will be read and retained.
We all agree it’s very important for customers to read your menu boards. It’s your last
opportunity to influence their purchasing decision before they make a purchase and
increase the likelihood they will return. Most of your customers return, or don’t return,
because of past experience. A great goal would be to create an experience that brings
them back.
When I first started in the digital menu board business my advice was to change only
one or two panels of the current boards to digital. I designed an LCD panel that would
replace one or more of the existing panels easily. Because of developments in the
industry since then I no longer advise that. Based on new cost, capabilities and
reliability, it would now be a better investment to replace the complete board with a
digital board. However, the board should have a limited amount of animated or moving
copy. Too much movement makes it too confusing for your customers and defeats the
purpose of moving content.
There should be a goal for each board, such as help to make the ordering decision,
trade up or increase ticket, introduce new items and build the brand. It should have a
positive effect on the customer’s experience.
Small copy, information on toppers, adders and misc. signs are not easily read in the
drive-thru. Digital menu boards will eliminate the need for these and make the ordering
decision easier and faster. The feeling of being rushed is increased when a customer
doesn’t know what they want and there is a car behind them. Those who feel rushed
are less likely to be satisfied with the experience and brand.
As with your current boards there should be separate, clearly identified sections on the
boards for different categories of products. Rather than just “present” information
boards need to merchandise and promote your products. The products should look real
and stimulate the appetite.
Part 3
Some of the comments I make in this section are just common
sense but in view of the many mistakes I have seen I will
mention them. Since the start of the digital signage business
there have been many companies enter the business and several
have filed for bankruptcy. As in most new industries there is a
shortage of expertise and many unqualified people are selling
digital signage systems, so be careful.
Many of the digital signage suppliers have made no investment to enter the industry
and simply contract everything out. If they sub everything out and have no value to
add to your project, you will be paying extra and receive delayed and poor service. Be
careful with someone that tells you they do everything. Make sure the supplier you
choose will be around for a while and can back up their warranties. Also, make sure the
warranties are backed up by the original equipment manufacturer and will be honored if
your supplier disappears or defaults.
Designing your digital signage system requires the cooperative effort of your marketing
department and the IT department. It may be best if driven by marketing with the
assistance of the IT department. First, you should understand all the capabilities of a
digital system. This may require at least a small test. When you have a good idea of
what you want the system to do you can design the system and set up a plan with
objectives and goals.
A test is a waste of time and money unless you have a proper plan with clear objectives
and a method of measuring success. When you have a good understanding of what you
want your system to do then you can design it. Without at least some minimum
specifications and guidelines before you send out an RFP the proposals you receive will
be so different you can not make accurate cost comparisons. If you are not very careful
the lowest priced system will end up costing the most.
Major components of a digital menu board system
The major components of a digital menu board system are hardware (screens and
computers or players), software, content, method of connection and implementation.
Hardware: The price of screens and computers change very quickly. If you do not
have good specifications you may end up with low quality screens that won’t last long
or do what you expect from them. As an example, your supplier may get a great deal
on some outdated models but will have to switch hardware on future purchases. Try not
to purchase a technology that may not be continued for long. Many people still use
plasma screens although LCD screens are now more popular. I am starting to hear
some major screen manufacturers state they will no longer manufacture plasma
screens. Make sure the screens and computers are industrial grade made to run 24/7
for up to five years. You can get warranties for that long.
Make sure all screens have the same or similar specifications. As an example at some
time in the future you may have screens on the wall behind the counter for your menu
board, a screen on the side wall, one on the counter, on a drink dispenser, in your
dining area, in the drive-thru, a pre-sell board and even an LED message center on
your main street sign. Where you can, make sure they all have the same aspect ratio
and similar enough specifications that all your content will run on any screen. It will
save on your content cost and help keep your image consistent.
Outdoor digital boards: Regardless of what you hear there are very few companies
that know how to manufacture outdoor digital signs that can be seen in the sunlight
and will last. Some companies that have been supplying outdoor LCD screens for years
still have serious problems with them. Due to the brightness and protection from the
environment required the cost is usually about twice that of the same size and type
indoor screen. New screens with LED backlighting that adjusts to the ambient light are
best but may also be the most expensive.
Software: Software is used to create content, download content, manage and schedule
content, play content, record how often and when content is played, to monitor the
health of your system and to alert service people when there is a problem. Most digital
signage companies have their own software but usually don’t have all these features.
You should test several to see which you think would serve you best and is easiest to
There are many available and most of the major software companies will license their
software to other suppliers. An important factor in selecting a software provider is how
many systems they have deployed in the field. Many small companies do not have
enough personnel or resources to support their own software. It requires a staff of
people to support a help desk, solve problems as they surface and to keep the software
updated. You won’t know what changes you may want when you install a system. It
should be adaptable to new technologies.
Content: What your customers see on the screens is most important. Many digital
signage companies supply their own content but it may be better to contract with a
company that specializes in digital content, especially for animated content.
It is possible to eliminate all the middle people and operations. The content can be
created by your own people or by your agency. It can go straight from them to the
boards. All paper or printed graphics can be eliminated and all the processes in the
middle. Your software should allow you to do this. There is also software available for
repurposing graphics to produce animated or moving graphics, although it requires a
high level of skill. If your graphics don’t engage your customers and call them to an
action you will loose the value of a digital system (or any system).
Connectivity: This is where your marketing people need to let the IT people step in. I
am a marketing person and don’t have enough expertise to give advice in this area. I
will just identify the important components to understand and share some of my
The most popular method of connection world wide is through the Internet. I have
observed very few problems with this type of connection and it may be the lowest cost.
There are several other ways to connect such as satellite and narrowcasting that would
be better if you are doing live content, very large files or live training on your system.
Even if you use very little video, animation or other large files it may be best to use a
multi-port switch to manage your band width.
Most of the customers I have worked with on digital menu boards start out stating they
want to use a wireless connection within the store to save the cost of running cable
and/or to keep the displays portable. Almost every one of them ended up using a cable
connection because of security concerns and it is a more reliable connection.
One of the most common problems I have observed occurs when the system is turned
of intentionally with a switch, or unintentionally during a power failure, while content is
being downloaded to the computer that runs the screens. To avoid these problems all
system shut downs must be managed or controlled. This is usually done with a large
enough battery back up to allow the download to complete before the system shuts
Most of the proposals for digital menu boards do not include the cost for adequate
battery backup or for a multi-port switch to manage downloads. The major reason,
other than just not knowing you should, is these items can be expensive and when
prospective customers review bids they just do not know to look for these items. That’s
just one of the reasons the lowest bid can be the most costly in the long run.
Implementation: I don’t know any digital signage company that has employees to
install digital signage roll outs. I have learned it is best to use trained installation
management companies. There are several you can choose from.
Part 4
Several major QSR chains started rolling out digital boards a few
years ago but the hardware, software and content was not
reliable, was difficult to use and very expensive. Although they
saw the benefits of digital menu boards they started before the
industry was ready.
All those problems have now been solved but the QSR industry has been slow to switch
to digital. The only major QSR chain I am aware of to roll out digital menu boards to
their entire system in North America is still Tim Horton’s in Canada. Although they have
had some problems with the outdoor digital menu boards I am told they are very happy
with the results of their system.
Many of the major chains have been testing digital boards, some for a couple years.
Many use them in Europe and Asia. Just recently several have announced they will be
rolling them out to their systems and have established a timeline. Many other chains
are seriously considering a roll out.
Selling ads to vendors and third parties
Some of your major suppliers will pay for space on your digital menu boards. Also, third
party ads can be sold on digital boards in your restaurants. Some companies have
signed deals where third party ads will pay the total cost of the digital boards.
There are several companies that install digital displays in your sites at no cost to you
but they retain ownership and sell you part of the space. They make money on the ads
that run on the screens. This is becoming less popular as the chains realize space on
the screens is too valuable for anything but their own products and information.
Entertainment value
Several companies are recommending or selling systems with entertainment or current
event information on digital menu boards to give people a reason to view them, or for
just the entertainment value such as in a sports bar. A better idea for menu boards
may be to show coupons or discounts to train people to view the boards.
Menu board placement
Digital menu boards and displays can be used effectively in several zones in your
restaurants and in the drive-thru. The purpose for each board will determine where it is
The first zone where you may consider digital boards is when you first enter the drivethru
lane or walk into the restaurant. This is where you want to make your guests feel
welcome and set the mood. Since most people won’t read much when they first enter
this zone it would not justify the expense of a digital board. Some simple welcome
message and a design that reinforces the brand would be enough. This could also be
included on a directional sign.
The next zone is after the customer has entered the restaurant or drive-thru and starts
to think about what they will order. This is a good place for a digital preview board. It
can influence the order, introduce a new product, upsell or influence a purchase on a
return trip. It is also a good place to introduce discounts or coupons.
The next and most important zone is where the order is placed. This is where the main
menu board is placed and the final decisions have to be made. These boards must be
well organized so they can be quickly read and easily understood. The products, prices
and necessary information should be displayed in a clear and appetizing manner. Only
information used to influence and make the final decision should be placed on these
boards. Order confirmation units have been very popular in the drive-thru but new
technologies are making them less needed and are on the decline. Some are being
converted to digital merchandising screens.
After the customer has placed the order and is either driving up to a pay window or
waiting to pay the attendant behind the counter is a good time to introduce credit card
information (maybe with a small screen on the back of the cash register), frequent
customer programs, brand information or new services.
After the order has been placed and customers are waiting for their food is a key time
when the perceived wait time needs to be influenced, especially in the drive-thru. If you
have a separate order pick-up area inside you can also include entertainment, current
event and neighborhood information.
Since outdoor digital boards are much more expensive than indoor it’s difficult to justify
using them anywhere in the drive-thru other than as preview boards or main menu
boards. However, traditional signage and graphics can be used.
Inside there are other areas where digital boards may be justified other than as
preview and main menu boards. They would be very effective in drink areas, dessert
bars or in the dining area. This is where you can influence additional or secondary
purchases such as a dessert, side order, take home order, extra drink or non-food
The dining area is a good place to put brand information, entertainment and local and
current information.
The last zone is where the customer leaves the restaurant. Although digital boards may
not be justified there should be some type of message thanking them for visiting and
encouraging them to return soon.
New technologies
When you develop your digital menu board plan keep new technologies in mind. New
technologies that allow your customers to interact with your displays have been
developed and are increasing quickly. These technologies are more common in other
parts of the world but are showing up in the US also. We are shifting away from “what
happened” to “what is happening.”

The Future of Digital Menu Boards

The Future of Digital Menu Boards

The idea of digital menu boards has been around much longer than most people realize. The technology that first made it a practical solution was the development of flat panel TV’s. Initially, software and hardware were too expensive and difficult to use to make it practical for the major QSR chains to roll out digital menu board systems, even though they understood the tremendous value.

The widespread consumer use of flat panel TV’s and computers brought the hardware prices down to a practical level and huge improvements were made in software as well as much lower costs. However, the cost of outdoor displays for use in the drive-thru lanes has remained very high because of the lack of a consumer market and is now the major objection of the large chains.

Most people agree digital menu boards will replace the current menu board systems; timing is the only question. I believe there is another obstacle that has to be overcome and that is resistance to change. In order for restaurant chains to utilize all the benefits of digital menu boards they have to make major changes to systems and procedures they have spent as much as 30 years developing. These procedures are even is most franchise agreements. An example is how the franchisor may charge a certain percentage of sales for marketing funds to cover menu board graphics. That’s not easy to change.

Another change they have to overcome is their concern about the life and reliability of digital menu boards. Even though they may only receive a one year warranty on the old style menu boards and 3 to 5 years on digital menu boards they are still concerned about the life and reliability of a new system. They have gotten used to the old boards lasting 15 or more years because there’s not much that can go wrong with them, but if an LCD screen goes out it has to be replaced. Even though it may be a sound financial decision it is often difficult to make because reliability is so critical.

I do believe most restaurant chains will soon take the first step into the pool and make the switch. Like many other technologies once they take the first step there will be no looking back. That’s when they will start taking advantage of many of the exciting technologies waiting for them. Restaurant chains need to keep up with the behavioral changes of their customers and that will drive the use of the following new technologies.

QR and TAG codes will be on digital menu boards and used with smart phones and other consumer appliances for coupons, specials and collection of marketing information. Recognition software will be used to learn more about their customers and gain more marketing information. Customers will not only use their smart phones for coupons but will order and pay their bills with them and other appliances. The use of retina identification will make credit card use quicker, safer and maybe eliminate the need for credit cards and cash. Digital menu boards and holograms will be used to make the customer’s experience more virtual and automated.

When looking into the future this is something I can visualize. I walk up to the counter of my favorite Quick Serve Restaurant. When I approach the counter the company mascot appears on the counter in the form of a very realistic hologram and says “Good morning Mr. Sharon. Would you like your usual today?” I answer yes or tell it what I want. My food is then handed to me with a receipt and I leave. I can visualize that because it is now possible.

Another technology that has been available for some time but not used as much as I expected is the use of senses other that the sense of sight in promoting food products, such as the sense of sound and scent. Some of the best digital content I have ever seen used sight and sound together, although you have to be careful where you use sound in a restaurant. The sense of scent can affect the appetite much more than the sense of sight or sound. As an example, can you imagine the scent of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies at a desert bar?

These technologies may seem a little “out there” to many because of the time it has taken the market to adopt simple digital menu boards, but there is a big difference that will affect the speed of change. First, digital menu boards and displays will provide the platform for many of these new technologies. Second, unlike digital menu boards where the technology lagged the adoption, most of these technologies are already developed.

The quick rate of development of new technologies makes it very important for suppliers and end users to keep up with the new developments, while at the same time making it increasingly more difficult to do. As an example, I have seen so many really bad digital menu board installations it has embarrassed me and hurt our industry. Fortunately, thanks to guys like Lyle Bunn and Alan Brawn, the industry is getting more educated and the quality of work has improved.

Technological changes continue to happen exponentially faster. As the more flexible and forward looking companies adopt and take advantage of these new technologies they will be more successful than the old dinosaurs that refuse to change and they will eventually replace them. As you have heard before, it’s no longer “The large will eat the small”. It’s now “The quick will eat the slow”. If you want a great example of this check out a new restaurant chain called Naked Pizza. Check out their growth and see what they use for menu boards.

Selling Digital VS Traditional Menu Boards

Selling Digital VS Traditional Menu Boards

I have been designing and selling traditional menu boards to the Quick Serve Restaurant (QSR) market for more than 30 years and digital menu boards more than 10 years. My experience has been that it is more difficult to sell digital menu boards. Although some of that difficulty is due to digital boards being a new emerging product that has taken several years to be fully developed, there are other reasons. Following are some of the difficulties I have experienced:

1. The process of selling digital menu boards must involve several departments but only one or two with traditional boards. Digital menu boards require involvement from marketing, merchandising, IT, operations, engineering, finance and top management. The proper use of digital boards requires such a major change in the overall operation of the organization all these departments should be involved at some point in the process.

2. Marketing or merchandising would normally be leading the process but when you discuss all the benefits of digital boards with them they may only be concerned with how it affects their department. As an example, they may not be interested in labor and energy savings or ease of operation, but other departments would. Selling to all the departments involved and controlling the process becomes a major task. The smaller the chain is the easier this is because there are fewer people involved in the process.

3. Menu boards are critically important to any QSR. They can’t operate without it. Think about what can happen to a traditional menu board; pretty much nothing. They won’t ever just go out. Whatever does happen the operators know they can patch it up or repair it themselves with no down time. Digital menu boards are different. Operators worry about what they do when a digital board goes down or they lose their Internet connection. These concerns are valid and have to be addressed during the selling process. You have to answer the questions “What happens when a board goes down? How long will it take to get it back on line? There are solutions to all these concerns but they need to be addressed up front and a plan put in place. One important feature of the software is sending out alerts when something is wrong or about to go wrong. The software can also be used to spread all the content over the remaining screens when one screen goes out. Redundancy in the system is important.

4. Another concern is longevity. How long will digital menu boards last? QSR operators are used to traditional menu boards lasting as long as 15 years, even though they may change them out long before then. However, that’s the number they use to compare digital boards. This concern has to be addressed in the selling process. This and item number 3 can be resolved with a good warranty and back up service plan.

5. Another concern is the cost of digital menu boards. Even though there are savings in some areas the original equipment cost is about double that of traditional boards. That means the ROI on the extra cost has to be addressed. The question “Why should I pay more” has to be answered.

I believe the ROI on digital menu boards make them a great investment as many QSR chains are learning, but you still need to provide the evidence. At some point this will be common knowledge and this step will not be as critical.