Rush is on to rule in-store TV ads

RETAILERS: Powerhouses including Wal-Mart, Target wire their aisles with ad-supported TV that reaches millions of shoppers

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Call it the first moment of truth or the last three feet, in-store broadcast networks have generated a mad rush among retailers to own their store airwaves. This so-called Holy Grail of marketing will funnel considerably more dollars into an already $17 billion retail marketing ad pot.

The audience reach is staggering. Kroger is launching a TV ad network in its 2,500 stores in partnership with In-Store Broadcasting Network. The Kroger network "delivers more reach and frequency than the largest radio station in the country," says Evan Anthony, Kroger's VP-marketing and advertising.

Wal-Mart Stores, in partnership with Premiere Retail Networks, boasts its TV network reaches 130 million viewers per four-week cycle.

Target Stores is quietly introducing Channel Red to its 1,418 stores. The channel is handled in-house in typical Target fashion.

Companies like PRN and IBN bear the infrastructure costs and gather advertising from suppliers to get into the stores in a bid to ultimately "own" the store airwaves. They're also churning out research to support their systems. "Research is the missing piece," says Norm Chait, VP-director of out-of-home at MediaVest USA.

IBN, in partnership with Kroger, put radio-frequency identification chips on shopping carts and studied 18,000 visits by shoppers to guide the installation of LCD screens and determine how long ads should be.

Instead of hanging screens from the ceiling like Wal-Mart TV, IBN in a test in Kroger's Houston stores put LCD screens in the aisles and adapted content and ads to nearby items.

"Other companies have just hung screens or repurposed content," says Robert Brazell, CEO of IBN. In what could be viewed as a bid to win over Madison Avenue, IBN recently inked a deal to launch an in-store network for Duane Reade, the New York-based drugstore chain.

Marketers still aren't sure which way to measure the medium, whether by sales spurts or brand awareness. "It is being held to a higher standard, probably because it's new," says David Sommers, managing director of MEC Retail, the in-store unit of Mediaedge:cia. Additionally, major marketers, particularly package-goods companies, are trying to figure out how to take advantage of it.