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Why Aren’t Digital Menu Boards More Widespread?

I don’t travel as extensively as I once did, but I’m still blessed to get around our beautiful country, and occasionally outside of it, a few times a year. As a long-time digital signage vet (they say once you start, you can’t stop!) I always notice digital signage and Building Map Designs wherever I go.

One question I have is why aren’t there more digital menu boards out there? It has always seemed to be a logical application of digital signage. Beyond the talk of an FDA mandate for nutritional data, digital menus are often billed as an easy way to update menus, add animations of certain content (e.g. steam coming off a hamburger), push specials during certain times, integrate with POS inventories (“stop selling burritos when the tortillas are gone”!), and more.

Despite the myriad of reasons to implement digital menu boards, most restaurants I go to don’t have them. Here are four reasons why I believe digital menus will become more widespread.

1.Decreasing Cost of Hardware (Displays and Players)

Historically, displays have been fairly expensive, which has stymied growth into commercial use. While most Americans have TVs in their living rooms (at least 96.7% according to Nielson), the numbers need to work for businesses to make the leap from paper/poster/dry erase board to digital. As supply chains tighten and demand grows, the price of televisions is dropping. We see this both with retail televisions, and commercial TVs (in various sales, though data isn’t readily available).

Another component of the hardware required to implement digital signage is the “player” – typically a device running a propriety software on Windows, Android or even Linux. These players range anywhere from $35.00 to $1,200.00 – a Linux based Raspberry Pi 3 on the low end (case not included), to a Windows-based unit with Intel processor on the high end (think Windows 10 Pro with Intel i7.

We find that in certain situations a Raspberry Pi is sufficient. These are no-frills devices, that excel at playing HTML5/“web” content. We recommend finding a device in the mid-range that bundles some hardware monitoring software. Bright Sign is a great choice, with hardware costs from $350.00 to $850.00 and built-in device management. The $350.00 HD222 is plenty for digital menu boards. If these prices don’t seem right, Google has also entered the market with their Chrome Box (available from DELL, ASUS, HP, ACER, and others) and SaaS-based device management.

2. Reduced Cost of Software

Software is an aspect of your investment that deserves research and planning. Software is often confused with “content.” But, it is the toolset that you need to do things like load new content, schedule an image or video for a time of day, remotely restart screens, and more.

Feature-rich software for digital signage is most often required when you’re building an interactive kiosk, incorporating wayfinding (plotting location on a building map), integrating with a database, etc. In the case of digital menu boards, displaying static graphics is sufficient for most users. Your options for software are many, and oftentimes free! Doing your research and being familiar with your team’s skillsets will help you here. Even though some software will allow you to, “update menu data from a spreadsheet,” it’s actually easier for your design team to export a new image from Photoshop. While including animations is nice, expect additional hardware requirements and higher costs per unit if you add a lot of video to your digital menu boards.

Even among providers of feature-rich solutions, it’s clear that to compete in the menu board space, their prices need to be lower. Look for a monthly cost of around $30.00 or an upfront cost of $1000.00 max for software. All that said, you should be able to find a free software product that will more than serve your needs for a single digital menu.

3. Better Uptime (Menus Can’t “Go Down!”)

Nothing can be more detrimental to a restaurant’s quality of service than a turned-off screen in place of a menu. We regularly hear from prospects who are fearful when technology is a part of a menu – without a menu, food sales can be affected. But one of the top benefits of the maturing digital signage market has been the increased reliability. You can now be much more confident that a digital menu in your restaurant will be lit and working during all business hours.

One key to assuring our customers of better uptime is redundancy. That is, we use multiple layered technologies so if one layer (the player, let’s say) fails, the screen can fall back on a USB drive. There are various other ways to do this, where a simple guide for the store manager can allow for redundant layers to be used where necessary. This ensures that all of the advantages of digital menus can be leveraged, while the downside of black screens is all but eliminated.

4. Store Owners Realize the Benefits

When it comes to technology, the market majority are late adopters. This has certainly been the case with digital menu boards, where even as the technology grows more affordable, ownership just feels more comfortable with old school methods. This can be changed by getting the word out, providing examples of where the technology can improve food sales or improve the customer experience.

Let’s rehash the benefits. For operations using a hub and spoke system where multiple stores use shared “commissaries” or “depots” for inventory, shortages of certain ingredients can update at the stores immediately. Where nutritional information needs to be listed, or where new menu items are regularly added, the design and alignment of content on the screens can be updated seamlessly. Where videos and animations can be eye-catching and street-facing, menu specials can be highlighted to accelerate sales.

And the bottom line is that, if a static (paper/magnetic/etc.) menu board costs $300.00 to purchase and $600 in labor to deliver, hang, and maintain, then the cost of static versus a digital menu board becomes roughly equivalent. Replacing this static board leads to costs over and above making it digital. One common complaint – energy consumption of televisions – is less of an issue, with modern televisions costing about $10.00 a month to keep on.

NOTE: In this shortlist, I’ve omitted situations where there isn’t enough physical space for screens, or screens simply don’t fit in the environment. Digital menus are a particular fit for QSR environments where customers walk up to the counter and order from a menu (typically behind the cashier).

Five traits of a Digital Signage consultant

Do a quick search for ‘Employee Communications Consulting’ on LinkedIn and you’ll find people with degrees from Hooters to Harvard. “Oh, you’re a ‘chest’ consultant? I see…” Well, I suppose there might be an opportunity there.

So when I suggest that consulting might be helpful to customers exploring new digital signage applications, or expanding their existing network, I do so with a hearty nod to those skeptics who didn’t even open this article. Here at Creating Margin, we think implementing digital signage warrants an investment in Employee Communications Consulting to determine how that implementation will work.

Here are five traits to look for in any consultant for digital signage customers.

An Employment History In Digital Signage

An expert in any field should have first-hand knowledge of the digital signage landscape. While the age of the digital signage industry (perhaps more than 15 years) may give the impression that it is mature, in fact, the landscape is very pre-consolidation. Indeed, while revenues are at all-time highs and growing as the world economy improves, there are few industry standards in place to establish terminology, common do’s and don’ts, as well as consolidate to the true industry leaders. While some entities offer industry certifications (consider www.DSEG.com, which offers a valuable primer and expert courses), rarely can one replace the knowledge acquired from implementing a solution from conception to installation.

With these first-hand insights, your consultant will be better able to steer you in a particular, reasoned direction based on successes and failures of past implementations. In a variation of Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” Robert Koolen of Koolen & Associates advises that “in order to skate to where the puck is going, you still need to understand where it has been.”

Deep Technical Knowledge Of Solutions

A non-technical consultant in digital signage may be nothing more than a grizzled sales veteran with a sack of industry catchphrases. While strategic or managerial guidance is no doubt helpful to many organizations, to me management consulting rings too much of McKinsey and Company, and too little of “let’s get this piece of glass displaying the right content.”

At the end of the day, implementing a successful digital signage network requires some very specific technical input, well-defined requirements (a business problem to solve, let’s say), and a steady, confident hand in execution.

An Independent Outlook On Hardware And Software Options

Perhaps finding an unbiased consultant is intuitive to some, but many digital signage customers rely on insights from persons with a financial interest in selling a particular hardware or software product. Instead, look for an expert who is deeply familiar with all elements of a digital signage solution (from pricing to support functionality), and lean on their recommendations.

Put it this way, if you ask that CUTCO knife salesman at your door about the best way to prepare your favorite meal, do you think he’ll recommend using anything from competing WUSTHOF? No, you can be sure that all the components of that meal will be sliced, diced, and cooked with CUTCO tools. Not surprising; that salesman may never have used anything else!

The reality in this fragmented world of digital signage is that each product or service provider excels in a particular niche. Even the best software providers may lack competencies in their order fulfillment processes. What we’re suggesting is a sort of best-of-breed selection process, and to ensure that these pieces are compatible you’ll again need to look to your consultant. To be clear, we’re not suggesting that you should use 5 different software platforms to meet your requirements, that is impractical. Even so, you’ll be better off finding someone with knowledge of those 5 platforms, and no commission incentive, to speak with about your project.

A Broad Network In The Field

We’ve agreed that buying recommendations without rollout is like throwing coins into the ocean thinking it’s a wishing well – your execution will start and end a bit off target. One of the most important traits of a reputable digital signage consultant is a broad network of associates – spread out both in expertise and in a geographic area- around the world.

Once ideas have been wire framed and networks have been diagrammed, the rubber has to meet the road with a network of A/V installers to realize the vision and get the hardware mounted and displaying content. Your consultant should be connected enough to offer specific names of companies that can play a part in the rollout in each region. Mike Shanley of Denver-based KonektId (pronounced “connected”) says that “in our global economy where even the smallest villages can be accessed remotely through the internet, the core of the international business is still based on strong personal relationships.” Shanley continues that “you can learn about a new market through Google, but it is not a replacement for established local relationships.”

A Global Outlook And Background

It goes without saying that the world is shrinking, that social networks and company cultures cross borders, and that languages may be the last frontier of truly global enterprises. But there will always be peculiarities in our “cultural norms” and different contributions from team members based on background and origin.

In their book “Building Cross-Cultural Competence”, Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars speak to the difficulty of delegating work across different in-country teams. Figuring out who is best positioned to succeed in a given assignment (whether short or long term, local or foreign) is a subjective measurement.

Each team member’s contribution must be evaluated from experience. A global view of cultural strengths can move us in the right direction in this analysis. Take the Dutch speed skating team in the Sochi Olympics for example – clearly, they have the special sauce when it comes to their sport. Do the Dutch have particular strengths in content creation or a unique software offering? For that, you’ll have to ask a digital signage consultant!

Lean on a consultant with these traits, and you’ll find digital signage to be an integral part of your IT and communications systems.