news from the intersection of branding & technology

Virtual Assistant Cuts in Line at Duane Reade

In brand-building, Shopper Marketing on October 23, 2011 at 1:29 pm

by Jeff Sandgren, Technology Editor

Some brands have it tough right from the start.  Branded solutions that focus on situations we innately dislike, for example.  Take waiting in line.  We hate to wait. In today’s society we’re each of us much too busy (and far too important) to have to endure anything short of immediate service and gratification.  So waiting is a big negative.  By association, so are all the accoutrements of waiting.

Queue Management solutions seek to tame that beast.  The most familiar component to most of us is the systems of belts and stanchions that line everyone up into an orderly queue, like at airport security points.   It’s a love/hate affair, really.  You may not like the feeling of being “herded” by the retractable tension belts, but the alternative is much worse, with a pushing and shoving crowd in which the rudest and pushiest are rewarded with the shortest wait.  Let’s face it: the tension belts of queue management keep things civilized.

More recently, however, innovative companies have begun to look at this space as an opportunity not just for orderliness, but for engagement.  They’re going beyond tension barriers and take-a-number systems, and employing digital signage, and even holographic projections.

We spoke with Keith Carpentier, Senior Business Development Manager at Lawrence, a Tensator Group Company.    At this year’s GlobalShop, the leading industry trade event for marketing-at-retail solutions, Lawrence showed some bold solutions to change the user experience while waiting into something more informative, entertaining, and social.  Apparently, some innovative retailers took note.

“Our position in the industry historically was retractable tension belts,” Keith explained, “but at our show this year, there were very few tension barriers as part of our booth.  We made a very powerful technology statement around queuing, and around impulse purchase buying.”

“The main goal has always been to guide the customer.  But in today’s competitive world, the guidance part is just the foundation of the pyramid.  Layered on top of that – and what the retailers today are most interested in – is impulse purchase generation, reduction of ‘walk-away’ shoppers, and efficiency.”

Lawrence claims to have led retailers to success in treating the checkout and service queues as a ‘micro-environments’ within the store.  It’s not the Point of Sale, and it’s not the broad shop.  It’s unique, with its own dynamics.  “It’s now taking on a more digital persona,” suggests Keith.  “The newest generation of solutions improves the efficiency AND become a profit center.”

Tensator has studied the difference between Actual Wait versus Perceived Wait.  A big factor is whether the waiting guests have their attention occupied with something they find interesting.  An occupied wait always feels shorter than an unoccupied wait.  Witness the prayerful posture of the smartphone crowd in such situations.

The checkout queue is the moment when a shopper has made the decision to buy something and invested the time to make the purchase, so it seems to be an ideal moment to engage them.  Initially, in-queue signage has offered URLs of brand sites or brand social sites as suggestions for guests to browse and “Like”.  QR codes are part of the next iteration, to make it easier for guests to ‘leapfrog’ to their sites with a simple click of the phone’s camera.

“Right now Brands are testing, learning how to best utilize the space.  Retailers are working hard at staying relevant, especially with younger shoppers.  They are looking to leverage this space as part of the experience, creating custom content to drive the consumer to social media sites.  It’s a great way to gain additional consumer insights.”

The ‘Holy Grail of queuing’, according the Keith, has always been grocery. Within the past year, there has been a big uptick in the grocery category, which pundits used to feel was ‘off limits’.  This includes interest and pilot studies by big players like Safeway, Kroger, Giant Eagle, and H.E. Butt in Texas.

Chain Drug retailers are even further along.  “Six out of the top ten chain drug are working with us to adopt these innovations,” claimed Keith.  “And we’re especially proud of our latest, state-of-the-art installation at Duane Reade.”

This past July, Duane Reade, New York City’s largest drug store chain, held a grand opening of its Wall Street megastore in the Trump Building.  Prominently displayed is “the industry’s first Virtual Assistant”, a next-generation digital signage solution by Tensator that creates the illusion of a real person acting as a ‘Greeter’ to provide Duane Reade customers with a friendly hello, useful information, and brand and promotional messaging.

“Our Virtual Greeter is an essential part of the ‘wow factor’ we have built into our newest store, and serves as ambassador of the new Duane Reade customer experience,” said Paul Tiberio, Senior Vice President of Merchandising & Chief Marketing Officer for Duane Reade. “The virtual aspect captures shoppers’ attention from the moment they enter the store – engaging their visual and auditory senses. And because the Virtual Assistant is so compelling, shoppers are receptive to the wealth of information she provides.”

There’s a bit of a Wizard Of Oz parallel to the presentation in the visual impact of the image – along with the requisite “pay no attention …” implied relative to the rather large projection platform, but it’s a nice neutral grey that quickly disappears from the visual perception with only the brand imagery sticking to the memory (hopefully).  Besides, the Virtual Assistant is just so charming, who cares what’s behind the curtain?  See for yourself at

The size of the projection device also triggers in our price-sensitive minds the question of what this thing costs – or, more importantly, how the payback measures up.  Tensator is no stranger to these issues with their traditional product line, having done extensive studies of the reduced cost of “walk-aways”, consumers who were intending to purchase but abandoned their merchandise when dismayed by the perception of a checkout queue that was too daunting.  Tensator studies have allegedly found an 80-90% reduction of this costly phenomenon when queues are properly designed, managed, and equipped with engaging information for the shoppers.

In this case, the Return On Investment seems pretty clear: replacing the cost of a human greeter with one whom, as the website demo informs us, is “available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, never needs a break or vacation” and can say whatever messages you want in whatever language is required with total compliance and consistency.   Human resources like that don’t come free … certainly not on Wall Street.            -JTS

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