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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Digital screens usher in new era of interactivity at Canadian retailers

LONDON, Ont. - Facebook suggests friends you may know, Netflix picks movies you might enjoy and, one day, digital menus at Tim Hortons drive-thru could be personalized, showing you your favourites and suggesting alternatives it thinks you might like to try.

The concept might seem a stretch, but the ability to launch the technology isn't that far away, said Nick Prigioniero, president of Cineplex Digital Networks.

"They're going to suggest things that I like, just like Netflix," he said of the concept. "(It'll be) on your phone or a digital menu board."

Retailers hope by launching a digital revolution within their stores they can lure shoppers' attention away from their Facebook and Twitter feeds long enough to be impressed by what's on shelves.

"Personalization is really key," said Prigioniero. "We live in a world where it's all about 'me,' it's not about anybody else anymore."

While smartphones will play a role, Prigioniero is confident that digital screens are making headway into changing the industry.

Cineplex Digital is leading the charge with nearly 33,000 screens of various sizes in retailers, fast food restaurants and banks. The operation was called EK3 Technologies Inc. before movie exhibitor Cineplex Inc. (TSX:CGX) bought it last year.

Tim Hortons recently yanked its static menu boards in favour of Cineplex Digital's new screens that show iced drinks that tempt viewers with a hypnotic frozen swirl and bagels that bounce across the screen with slow-motion determination to attract your taste buds.

Cineplex also handles hardware and technical support for menus at McDonalds, and inside Bank of Montreal (TSX:BMO) and Royal Bank (TSX:RY) locations, where promotions for RRSP season and the latest credit cards have become animated spectacles.

While Cineplex Digital isn't the only digital screen company in Canada, it's deals with some of the biggest clients. Other smaller companies like Wolfe Works and a division of Toshiba are focused on serving small- and medium-sized businesses.

Cineplex Digital's headquarters in London, Ont., serves as the laboratory for many of the company's campaign ideas. It's where Tim Horton's menus face scrutiny from a team of techies who monitor walls of screens, and designers lay out the look for U.S. fast food clients such as Chik-Fil-A and Panda Express.

Capturing the attention of customers, and keeping it, has become a challenge for retailers as fast-paced TV shows and the endless barrage of social media shorten attention spans, said Brynn Winegard, a marketing analyst at Winegard and Co.

"You have to have content that varies, so it maintains their interest, otherwise people are so good at tuning things out," she said.

"If it's not flashing or moving, they're not as likely to pay attention."

Earlier this year, Sport Chek opened a store at the West Edmonton Mall that has become a prototype for other retailers.

The store has more than 800 digital screens that simulcast 240 channels of information including promotional footage, from sporting goods companies like Nike and Adidas, that flashes at a pace that makes it hard to look away.

Shoppers can also use a digital touchscreen to design their own hockey jersey, or pull up information on a running shoe by waving it in front of a giant screen that displays the details using chip technology.

Screens are also starting to replace the traditional community bulletin board. At Sport Check, an interactive screen lets customers browse snapshots of photos emailed to the store from local kids' soccer games and other neighbourhood events.

At Tim Hortons, the company is testing its own version of a community space with Tim's TV that it describes as a home for the latest news, weather, local events and branded videos.

The channel, in partnership with Cineplex, will advertise for "complementary" brands like food and automotive companies, similar to a concept that's been used at Pizza Pizza's Ontario locations for several years.

"It reduces perceived wait time because you're so busy watching it," said Prigioniero.

"At some point you're going to be able to interact with what's happening on Tim's TV using your mobile device."

While digital screens are only part of the future of retail, they've become a symbol of the possibilities as stores look for ways to overshadow the convenience of online retailers like Amazon.

Canadian Tire Corp. (TSX:CTC.A) recently announced a deal with TSN that will have the broadcaster produce branded advertising content to be posted online and shown in Sports Chek stores.

"Things are evolving very quickly," said Michael Medline, president of Canadian Tire, the owner of Sport Chek, at a recent retail conference in Toronto.

"But if you don't start trying things ... you're going to be in bad shape. You're going to be a dinosaur."

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