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HOW TO ... Make POP and signage technology work for you.

New technologies in signage and point-of-purchase communications are creating exciting and effective methods to drive customers to purchase your products. From smart signs to new materials, technologies present retailers with an unprecedented level of interactivity, flexibility and impact.

The abundance of new POP technologies makes it more important than ever to make smart choices. Here are some questions to guide the process:

Will the new technology drive my customers into the store and toward a purchase, or will it merely amuse people for a moment? Remember that the ultimate goal of any signage or POP program is to generate traffic and sales. As a retailer, you want to be cleaning footprints from your floor, not noseprints from your window.

Does it do what I want my salespeople to do? Retail technologies make sales happen by:

* flagging price in a breakthrough fashion;

* helping customers find their way around the store;

* answering customers' questions;

* and communicating the benefits of your products.

Can I afford it? Make sure you understand the total cost of any new technology. If there is a maintenance cost, make sure it is fixed, not variable.

Will it help make my operation be more efficient, or will I be constantly fussing with it? A good pricing or merchandising technology must be easier to update than your old process of swapping out physical signs and tags.

Does the new technology present itself well? Does it reflect the overall image you want to convey? Hold any new ideas to the same high aesthetic criteria you have for the traditional design elements of your stores.

What's out there The options are seemingly endless. At Design Continuum, a design consultancy, we have been at the forefront of numerous breakthrough technologies, working with companies to help launch new products. Consider these examples:

* Revolutionary display technologies. One of our clients, Cambridge, Mass.-based E-Ink, has a fantastic technology for flexible, ultra-thin (a few sheets of mylar) signs that use a proprietary electronic ink. We designed an E-Ink POP display for JCPenney that looks like a high-tech magic carpet. It draws the eye, and is also magically easy to update. With the use of paging technology, text can be entered from a computer within the store or from a remote location.

* E-commerce in traditional retailing. Another of our clients, Burlingame, Calif.-based Telescan Systems Inc., creates interactive customer relationship management tools. Telescan's in-store marketing networks allow retailers to inform customers, promote and demonstrate products, train staff, and receive continuous feedback on shopping behavior. Telescan's interactive appliances are compact and purpose-built for retailing.

* Advances in substrates and printing technology. We can now print on substrates that are washable and extremely durable, like scratch- and graffiti-resistant electrographic media for short-term indoor and outdoor promotional signage. Pressure-sensitive vinyls with microencapsulated adhesives can be used for customized images and applications, ranging from bus wraps to full wall covers. Advances in printing technology keep pushing the envelope.

Tying it all together New technologies should work well, look great and ultimately serve your business strategy. An enlightened designer can evaluate the new choices holistically, to make sure that they satisfy these requirements. Also, many savvy manufacturers offer support to help you truly integrate the new technology into your environment and operations.

To get started on your education, be sure to attend a tradeshow or two. You will cover a lot more ground than calling for brochures and meeting with manufacturers' reps, at least at the beginning. Bring your best expression of your retail strategy with you, to prevent yourself from getting lost like a kid in a candy store.

You can also save time by starting with the technology columns in retail trade publications. The best publications, and particularly some newcomers, evaluate the options and report objectively through the eyes of experts on the best new systems.

But the best advice is to remember that you, not the technology, are the boss. Evaluate the technology as you would a candidate for one of the most important jobs in your business. Tell the technology what you want it to do, and then hire only the systems that make the grade.

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