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From once being a postscript to the marketing campaign, POP has evolved into a highly sophisticated first line attack when it comes to getting brand messages across in-store. Des King reports on what comes next

The received wisdom has it that around 75% of all purchasing decisions are directly influenced in-store. Consider Tesco’s hold over the national purse as the recipient of one in every eight pounds spent and the knock-on impact on the packaging industry, and “go figure” as the Americans say.

“It’s become a very sophisticated marketing tool and it also has the advantage that it’s traditionally been under invested in”, says Charles Kessler, md of Kesslers International, one of Europe’s leading POP designers and manufacturers: “It’s only a few years ago that POP wasn’t given the kind of consideration that it now receives. It was something of an also-ran; now it’s perceived as a fundamental part of the marketing mix. That is partly because it’s effective, and also because retailers insist on it. A brand owner would not consider doing a campaign now without considering how it looks in-store, and that means working with the retailer”.

The positive interest shown by retailers in POP, however, could be turning into something of a two-edged sword. The rollout of 42in plasma screens down the aisles of 300 Tesco stores will have undoubtedly sent a collective shudder rippling through the ranks of POP manufacturers. Video might not have killed off the radio as some bright sparks once predicted, but if video advertising takes off – and the smart money says it will – then the amount of printed material on display must inevitably reduce.

A 10% uplift in TV monitor generated sales achieved during in-store trials conducted via Applied Television earlier this year was enough to prompt a Tesco TV media manager to pronounce: “no more cardboard – and that’s official”.

   However, anticipating the total demise of printed display material is undoubtedly premature. But Tesco’s positive support for words and pictures has given what in hindsight may well prove to be the green light moment for a whole new breed of POP specialists, agrees Narda Shirley, communications director of Applied Television. “From our perspective the rationale behind the decision is twofold: more control over which information and promotional content appears in the store and where, and much better advertiser information in terms of compliance”.

Of the two “C” words, it is compliance rather than cardboard that really counts. However well conceived and created any point of purchase display might be, it can only be effective if it’s correctly installed and maintained. There are horror stories within the industry of POP units never even making it from the delivery bay. From a brand owner’s perspective, a 30 second slot on the plasma screen might work out to be expensive, but exposure is at least guaranteed.

Currently, POP packaging suppliers are maintaining a cautious watching brief. “You have to take it seriously”, says Bezier director Gary Knights. “Our clients are all very interested in it and there are pilot schemes going into some very large blue chip organisations. It is in its embryonic stage and people are yet to develop a strategy as to how it might work alongside conventional POP and indeed advertising, but you certainly can’t just ignore it. What’s yet to be proven is that shoppers will actually stop and watch these screens”.

Augustus Martin’s marketing director, John Ryan, also questions the willingness of in-store shoppers to stand glued to the screen. “The dwell time for people to understand what you are trying to sell them in a pure offer sense is unlikely to be satisfied via the screen. Those in-your-face messages have to be communicated at point of purchase”.

Replacement of printed POP by plasma screen is not seen to be a viable option. That fate, however, could arguably lie in store for the industry’s longest established process technology.

Having already seen market share eroded by the growing adoption of large format digital systems, screenprinting is now coming under increasing pressure from new developments being made by offset litho presses.

Litho opens up new opportunities

“Litho is opening up new opportunities for us and for retailers to get different kinds of quality and cost-base”, says Ryan. “We’ve just invested in what will be the largest UV offset litho press in operation anywhere in the world, a KBA 2.5m wide x 1.51m system costing around £3m which will be installed early next year, with the option on a second one.

“It is a pretty powerful piece of equipment and will enable us to produce large format graphics to litho quality in volume and at speeds of around 11,000 sheets/hr on substrate sizes up to 1.2 mil. The way we are geared as a business we do not have what you would normally call long runs. We are changing jobs constantly throughout the day. Changeover time on the new KBA press will be about 30 minutes; that’s the significance of investing at the high-tech high-value end”.

Ryan agrees that POP is rapidly becoming a short run market. But whilst Augustus Martin is pumping money into offset, SimpsonPrint is amongst an increasing number of converters taking the digital route.

Having had digital capacity for the past six years, SimpsonPrint has recently invested around £1m in upgrading its production line through the acquisition of CorJet and XLJet large format presses from Scitex, plus a digital finishing machine from Kongsberg. The CorJet is a 3m x 1.6m flatbed outputting system, while the XLJet is a 3.2m wide reel-fed machine for wide format banners and posters up to any length.

According to md Mark Simpson, ROI could be achieved well within the next two years. However, that has to be balanced by the comparatively short life cycle of the current crop of digital systems on the market. With Simpson’s customer base including a high proportion of retailers looking to initiate short-run POP campaigns, ongoing investment is very much on the cards.

”Awareness of digital capability is becoming increasingly prevalent and forward investment will be angled more down that route”, says Simpson, “although we’re also looking very hard at litho too. Large format offset litho presses with automatic make-ready and CTP are increasingly encroaching on the POS market, so traditional screen is being squeezed from both ends”.

Will screen ever disappear then?

“It might come to an end, yes”, says Simpson. “It may have another 5 to 10 years in the graphics market tops. There is far, far more r&d and investment going into digital and litho than there is into screen. For one thing there’s only really one screen press manufacturer left (Thieme), and even they are now developing a digital press in conjunction with Agfa.”

Bezier’s most recent cap-ex investment was also in digital technology through the purchase nine months ago of an Inca Eagle inkjet system, which, says Gary Knights, has probably already achieved ROI. “Digital capability enables you to add a different dimension. We are starting to see regionalisation in the POP market. If you look at the country as a whole, there are very different buying patterns. What has finally happened is that the technology has caught up with demand and you now have systems that can very quickly and cost-effectively deliver what the marketeers want”.

POP providers must offer media mix

The reality is that the POP specialist now has to cover all the angles. Augustus Martin’s Ryan agrees that business survival is based upon offering a raft of different solutions plus high-value customer service. And that can only be done by investment.

“We most likely see ourselves as a media hub; we can deploy messages in different ways for our customers to most accurately suit their needs”, says Ryan. “In effect the same job could break down as say 2,000 off via litho, a very punchy screen effect for 500 off and then a specific poster for the top 30 stores printed individually and digitally – plus a 3 minute video clip to run via the plasma screens. That’s the kind of mixed delivery that customers will start to expect as standard”.

With all this focus upon delivering brand messages in-store is there not a risk of consumers developing POP blindness? Not necessarily, says Charles Kessler, whose company recently sponsored an extensive research study to assess reaction amongst consumers to POP. In addition to predictable enough positives – 55% of respondents said POP assists impulse purchases– it is interesting to note that over one third of consumers surveyed wanted to experience more “theatre” in-store.

According to Kessler, shopping is increasingly a leisure activity. It is possible that POP’s contribution to creating an environment has yet to be fully explored and this could be where plasma screens have greatest impact.

“There are two main aspects to POP: creation of in-store ambience and material geared to convey a direct call to action,” says John Ryan. “Retailers are looking at ways in which to differentiate the in-store experience, and not necessarily via the product. Digital communication will add new opportunities for ambience”.

“I think that these two media – monitors and conventional POP – can work in harmony,” agrees Bezier’s Gary Knights. “We have been discussing internally how best to use in-store TV to better inform consumers; but you are still going to need traditional POS to display and actually attract attention. So cardboard is alive and well.”