This year, social media and customer contact tools changed the rules of engagement for retailers and consumers.

Walmart’s, Best Buy’s and many other large and small retailers’ customer contact/relationship programs were effective at getting consumers into the store.

But getting prospective customers in the store is less than half the challenge.

Small- to medium-sized retailers realize that one of Walmart’s most powerful and most effective selling tools this holiday season was the way they used their Walmart Smart Network to deliver entertaining and informative video messages to shoppers while they were in the store.

However, the more expensive, more controlled solutions are built around the PC, which generally means that people with IT and graphic design software expertise manage the activity. As a result, many retailers relied on the “tried and true” in-store solutions (end cap, shelf-topping signs, shelf hangers, printed P-O-P displays).

Looking for a win-win solution, a growing number of creative retail marketing managers, as well as their suppliers, installed and tested standalone and networked digital signage.

The newer-generation of purpose-built, dedicated digital signage platforms share some of the basic design philosophies of the netbook, which was introduced in 2007. When Asustek’s Jonney Shih came up with the netbook, he wanted a device that offered good performance, was easy to use and affordable.

In a similar manner, today’s digital signage solutions have evolved beyond the programming and network management restrictions of PC-based signage to solid-state packages that don’t require technical expertise. The programming and management can be done by people who don’t have specialized graphic design software training.

Study the Weaknesses

Creative retailers have begun looking closely at Walmart’s “crush the competition” approach to see how they can modify their approach to compete beyond low price.

Small retailers have taken advantage of the affordable stand-alone digital signage solutions that can be programmed and updated with a USB stick or a removable flash memory card. With these solutions, entertaining sales messages can be created, modified and updated in just minutes using simplified software provided with the system.

In multi-location, multi-sign operations, managers are using standard network wiring and the Internet cloud to upload fresh, attention-getting sales messages and to manage the timing and placement of product multimedia messages.

The new solid-state solutions eliminate PC issues such as the “blue screen of death,” rebooting and viruses.

Whether it’s a large or small group of installations, they can be set up, configured and managed locally or from a central location by marketing and product managers. The leading units support full, high-definition video, so consumers get the same high-quality images in the store as they do at home.

More importantly for regional or widely dispersed stores, different sales messages can be sent to individual, city or area-wide stores to maintain the same image, the same sales proposition–regardless of the location.

The key part of the solution, that even the Walmart Smart Network doesn’t have, is the presentation authoring, management software which leading-edge solution providers bundle with the dedicated digital signage package. The authoring software enables virtually anyone to quickly and easily create presentations without involving expensive programming and graphics specialists.

You’re in Control

The software lets the manager or marketing/communications team create playlists and makes it easy for them to access and implement player features.

Merchandising managers can use simple tools and wizards that walk them through the complete presentation creation process. Zone templates and custom layout tools make it fast and easy for content authors to create eye-catching, response-driven displays without all of the graphics expertise usually required to configure coordinates and image sizes.

Some of the bundled software packages incorporate many of the comprehensive capabilities previously found only in the streaming media network solutions. This includes looping video playback, multimedia playlists, multiple display zones, day-parting, interactive button/touch screen demos, multi-unit video wall synchronization and more.

As a number of consumer electronics and home appliance retailers found this year, they can also update and fine-tune messages and entertainment in almost real-time to respond to customer text/Tweet inputs as well as changes to meet local/regional needs.

Equal Footing

To give credit where credit is due, Walmart’s Project Impact is a well-thought-out corporate and marketing initiative that so far, has been very well executed.

The social media tools they use are not proprietary to them and are available for anyone, everyone, to master and use in creative marketing and customer support solutions.

These tools get the customer into the store.

But that’s only the beginning of the path-to-purchase.

Research consistently shows that 50 percent of all purchase decisions are still made in the store.

This is where the consumer is the most susceptible, the most open to receive product information that talks directly to them.

The consumer is standing there waiting to be educated, informed, assisted to ensure they make the right buying decision.

It is at this moment – this time – that you are on an equal footing with Walmart.

Actually, you’re in a better position…the consumer is in your store watching your key informational and sales messages in brilliant HD.

Success isn’t measured by mass media marketing but in the retailer’s or product manager’s ability to deliver clear, concise, entertaining information to the consumer in the aisle.