Flying eggs. Meandering cows. Dancing umbrellas or brightly colored sunglasses. These are just a few of the animated images you might see if you drive by (or, better yet, drive through) a Swiss Farms store. Swiss Farms drive-thru grocer first launched in 1968 and, according to the company website, many of the customers that grew up on Swiss Farms continue to enjoy the fresh products and convenience of the neighborhood store with their own children and grandchildren.

Not What They Remember

But the new flagship location in Millmont Park PA and a fully-revamped legacy store in Drexel Hill PA are not what early customers remember. A digital signage network with audio draws customers in, shares important information about sales, and replaces “dead-tree” flyers and static message boards that listed products for sale.

The store intends to retrofit all 12 of its existing locations and incorporate the new building design, digital signage and technology systems in all of its new corporate stores, plus any franchise locations. In addition to opening new corporate locations, Swiss Farms intends to open at least one new franchise this year, five next year, and 10 in 2012.

New Technology For A New Image

The digital signage and AV installation is part of a comprehensive revamp of the Swiss Farms image, as the chain seeks to re-brand itself as “the customer’s in-between shopping trip.” The new Swiss Farms stores emphasize speed and efficiency, and the digital signage network helps advertise the store’s new product offerings, which include fresh produce, baked goods and prepared meals, along with other information to help customers make buying decisions. Most importantly, the digital signage serves to draw eyes to the building, contributing to the store’s new high-tech image while enticing and attracting customers. If the sight of four cows meandering across a digital landscape that spans four flat screens reminds you that you need to pick up milk on your way home from work, the technology has done its job.

The newest Swiss Farms location was voted “Best Exterior” in the June issue of the trade magazine Convenience Store News. The article describes the building’s look and feel, and explains how it contributes to the company’s new marketing message: “The curved horizon line gives the feeling of a landscape, and also speaks to the speed of the shopping process [according to designers at Chute Gerdeman Retail in Columbus OH]….The drive-thru’s exterior features fresh queues from European barn architecture, combined with a sleek shape and metal accents. Swiss Farms’ barn motif also has been ramped up with the addition of an eye-catching, hand-painted silo.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows encourage visual merchandising, make shopping even easier for customers in the comfort of their cars, and provide the perfect viewing angles for eight LCD screens that broadcast custom content through the CoolSign digital signage network. Chris Gray, Network and Systems Administrator for the Swiss Farms chain of stores, noted the key corporate consideration prior to the digital signage and AV installation: “How do we convey our product offerings in a way that will have high appeal?”

Five DS Needs

In an in-depth interview with Sound & Communications, Gray went on to explain the company’s five main needs for the digital signage systems.

  • Centralization: The content had to be created and controlled from the Swiss Farms corporate headquarters in Broomall PA.
  • Integration with other database systems: The system had to be able to read store inventory as well as know what is on sale—and the pricing—in each individual store, while also pulling product images from the corporate database.
  • Robust operation, with room to grow: The system had to be able to integrate with a customer loyalty program that is yet to be deployed.
  • Stability: Gray and his colleagues were seeking a proven, widely deployed digital signage program they knew they could trust. Downtime was not an option.
  • Ease of use: The system was to be run by graphic designers at the corporate headquarters, not the IT staff, so it had to be extremely easy to use.

“Our biggest consideration was ease of use,” Gray said. “We took more than a year looking at integrators and different systems.” Swiss Farms ultimately selected West Chester PA-based Advanced AV (advancedav.com) for the company’s pricing, service and offerings. “They had what we needed and were locally based,” Gray stated. Advanced AV’s Digital Signage Market Development Manager Vince Faville worked closely with Gray throughout the design process and installation project.

The initial roll-out of the digital signage network included one retrofit store, based in Drexel Hill, and one new flagship location in Millmont Park, just outside of Philadelphia.

Hardware Installation

One of the biggest challenges going into the project was the setup and installation of the eight NEC P461 46-inch LCD monitors. Initially, Gray and other decision-makers weren’t sure how they wanted the flat screens set up: what configuration would create the best view from the road and from the line as customers waited in their cars to place their order.

Advanced AV designed a sophisticated custom pipe-based hanging solution based on Peerless mounts, that lets the user place the screens in a variety of configurations behind the floor-to-ceiling windows. Four screens hang on each side of the store, facing cars that drive through the center.

The four displays can be hung two-and-two, spaced all four evenly apart, all spaced close together or any other configuration imaginable. Currently, the screens are all together and content visually connects the screens. For instance, eggs shot from a cannon travel from the first screen onto the second, fly onto the third and then land in a basket on the fourth screen. Atlas Sound SM42-TW outdoor speakers provide a soundtrack to accompany “attract loop” programming like the eggs from a cannon scene. The speakers are wall-mounted on the top of each door, tight against the building, where they are not visible to people in passing cars. They are powered by Crown 280A amplifiers, and the signal is routed from the CoolSign digital signage software, through a Rane RPM2 programmable audio multiprocessor to the speakers.

Although the animation is eye catching and exciting, it gets really cool when a customer pulls up to the window to place an order. Here, an ultrasonic sensor detects the vehicle, sends a signal to the CoolSign software, and the display changes to a menu board. In the past, customers perused four-color fliers to see the week’s sales plus regular offerings, to decide what they wanted to order. These fliers were supplemented by old-fashioned menu boards advertising staples such as milk, bread and eggs. Now, it’s all digital.

Retrofit Locations

The initial retrofit location in Drexel Hills sports a similar system, but incorporates only four 40-inch NEC P401 LCD screens. These displays are located just within the windows, with one visible on either side as a customer’s car enters the store area, and a second closer to the clerk, all placed at eye level to the drivers. Because these signs are visible only as a car pulls up, they are used primarily as menu boards and to advertise sales. They’re incorporating some of the attract loop content, but not as much, the old locations don’t have sensors to detect cars approaching.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once noted, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Certainly, having images change just as your car pulls up to a flat screen may seem like magic to those who aren’t technically oriented (if the novelty of those flat screens themselves has already worn off), but the real “magic”—that is to say, the truly advanced technology—begins at Swiss Farms corporate headquarters in Broomall PA. The CoolSign software that relays the images to PCs located at each store and then, finally, to the flat screens, runs on a custom-designed OEM computer server created by Advanced AV and located in the data center at corporate HQ.

But it doesn’t just run content designed by content creation company Blue Pony. The software is fully integrated with the corporate database, as well as each store’s individual inventory and pricing, plus the time of day and, soon, the weather.

The CoolSign software displays different content based on time-of-day, plus the individual store’s sale pricing and inventory. In the evening, the software might be playing ads for fresh-cooked rotisserie chickens. But if that store is out of chicken, it won’t advertise chickens. It will pull another time-appropriate menu choice from the inventory. If an individual store’s management chooses not to run a particular sale, the software knows this and won’t display that advertising.

More Software

Just as the software pulls information from corporate headquarters and from each store’s inventory database, it will soon be able to read the weather from the internet and then generate content based on that: umbrellas on a rainy day, for instance, hot chocolate ads when it’s cold, and ice cream and sunglasses when it’s warm out. Gray offered that this was planned in the original design but other projects have kept Swiss Farms from rolling it out yet. Another planned aspect is integration with Swiss Farms’ customer loyalty program, so digital signage at the point-of-sale can also be tailored to specific repeat customers. After the employee scans your card, the software will “see” your recent purchases and create ads custom tailored to your needs.

“The signage system is completely dynamic, It is not created and then pushed to the stores. Templates are created and the system is smart enough to generate advertisements based on whether an item is on sale or not, the time of day and the weather.”

Very few solutions can handle this fully dynamic content, the conditional display and scheduling of content, plus the triggering necessary when a car pulls up. The CoolSign software has an incredibly strong engine behind it to be able to query the systems and create content dynamically.”

Once the templates are created, the system does the “grunt work” on its own. That was a major requirement of this system, to be able to create content and not require somebody sitting there eight hours a day, every day, pushing it to the stores.

IT Integration

From the server at Swiss Farms HQ, the signal travels across a Wide Area Network to what “digital signage mega-engines,” custom AAV-ATG super-computers designed to run the CoolSign Quad Output Network Player software. New stores use two machines to send signals to four screens each, while retrofit locations use one computer for all four screens. Each computer contains four video cards to drive the synchronized content. The computers are located in the manager’s office, in rackmount units that also house the point-of-sale computers, audio amplifiers and Rane processor.

The signals travel from corporate HQ via a frame relay system or, in some cases, T1 lines. This infrastructure was already in place for point-of-sale systems, inventory and security, but “sharing” space with these existing systems posed a unique challenge for the installer. Advanced AV had to tune the software in such a way that it was able to communicate without bringing the POS system and the security system to its knees.

This integration with existing IT systems is what makes digital signage so exciting for audiovisual systems designers and installers. “The AV portion of digital signage is very simple,” he said. “It’s the software and PCs and the LAN and WAN networking infrastructures that are not normally in the realm of a commercial AV dealer.”

Advanced AV’s expertise is what sets them apart from other AV installers in the company’s region. Advanced has a dedicated digital signage division, they are doing dedicated hardware and they have dedicated IT experience. They pride themselves in their ability to talk to anybody in a company, especially on the corporate side, from an IT perspective.