A Shopping-Cart-Ad Plan That Might Actually Work

MediaCart Launches Pilot Program in Northeast as Retailers Express Interest

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- The shopping cart as ad medium -- a so-far elusive dream for everyone from fledgling entrepreneurs to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts -- may finally have found its killer app.
Keep 'em quick: MediaCart execs say very short video ads are the most effective.
Keep 'em quick: MediaCart execs say very short video ads are the most effective.

At least that's what backers of MediaCart, a shopping cart with video-, voice- and radio-frequency identification, are hoping. MediaCart quietly rolled into a three-store pilot in the Northeast on Feb. 1, said company executives, who noted that the system has drawn interest -- if not commitments so far -- from the nation's top 10 retailers. The company plans two more regional tests by summer and a national rollout by year-end.

First national player
MediaCart is at least the third entry into the computer-aided-shopping-cart space, and neither of the other two have rolled out nationally yet. The oldest, Cuesol's Shopping Buddy, is in 20 New England Stop & Shop stores.

But MediaCart executives feel they've cracked the code by putting their video screens atop the back of the cart, where it's almost impossible not to see during a shopping trip. The carts have cellphone-style navigation buttons on the handle and a self-scanning feature that can be used for nearly instant checkouts.

They also use voice-recognition technology to help shoppers find products, mobile-phone capability to connect users with customer-service personnel, and RFID to allow direct marketing and market research.

At MediaCart's Plano, Texas, test store, Procter & Gamble Co., General Mills, Kraft Foods and PepsiCo are among major marketers running ads and promotions on the video screens. MediaCart declined to identify which marketers are participating in its Northeast pilot.

Timing is crucial
MediaCart isn't much of a "Sisomo" machine, a la Mr. Roberts' vision of the shopping cart as ad vehicle. MediaCart Chief Marketing Oficer Jon Kramer discourages marketers from using video longer than a couple of seconds- -- bout the longest he believes shoppers pay attention to most in-store messages. The exception is at checkout, where the carts can be programmed to play clips of Disney DVDs to induce impulse purchases by moms with kids in tow.

Several hundred consumers have made research trips through MediaCart's test facility, and reviews appear to be positive.

"It just blew me away what they were doing with it," said Ressie Browning, 67, of Cedar Hill, Texas, who works two days a week selling automotive glass. "I looked at the ads a lot, noticing that they popped up as you walked by [the product] and [said] whether it was on special. What I liked best was being able to locate items by being able to type in two or three letters."

Rosemarie Cidmonte, a Plano, Texas, bank executive in her 50s, said she recalled ads from P&G's Tide and PepsiCo's Propel. She usually uses store circulars but liked having promotions pop up on the cart instead.

Real-world tests
Whether the novelty will wear off and whether the cart will get as much attention in stores shoppers are more familiar with will be among the factors the real-world pilots will test.

MediaCart is probably the most ambitious attempt yet to use RFID in consumer marketing, but it doesn't put radio-frequency chips on individual products -- the most costly and controversial RFID proposition to date. Each cart has an RFID reader, while shelf price labels have the chips.

The system also lets retailers change prices or marketers change ads rapidly, said Steve Carpenter, CEO of closely held MediaCart.

About 80% of MediaCart features will work without using individual consumer data, Mr. Carpenter said. That could overcome a sticking point not only for privacy advocates, with whom he said MediaCart has been in contact, but also for such retail giants as Wal-Mart Stores, Target and Walgreens, which don't have loyalty programs.

But the company concedes that at retailers with loyalty programs, shoppers will probably have to swipe their ID cards to benefit from promotional offers or special features such as downloading shopping lists from their computers or uploading recipes from the carts to their computers.

Media-measurement tool
Regardless of whether MediaCart grows into a substantial marketing medium, its potential as a media-measurement tool could give it some added life. The system addresses some of the research and measurement quandaries Nielsen Media's Nielsen Connect unit identified in December as it took over the work of the industry's Pioneering Research for an In-Store Metric (PRISM) consortium, Mr. Kramer said.

MediaCart tracks and analyzes how many shoppers stay in the presence of in-store ads and for how long. And because each cart includes a scanner, the system can measure the sales impact of ads in real time at the point of purchase; it includes both ads displayed on the cart screen and ads from other in-store media.

Because shoppers scan each item they put into the carts, the devices also enable rapid self-checkout -- and staffing efficiencies -- for retailers, Mr. Carpenter said.

Ultimately, in the tradition of in-store marketing, suppliers would foot the bill for most of this should MediaCart roll out broadly. MediaCart isn't offering details on cost, but Mr. Kramer said pricing would be on a CPM basis, like conventional media, only with measurement data akin to that offered by online-search advertising.
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