Electronic ink? Digital paper? Although these products sound like a science-fiction fantasy, industry heavyweights are betting that they will change the way we present sales information and move products.
Lucent Technologies (www.lucent.com) and E Ink (www.eink.com) have teamed up to produce what they call electronic ink-a product that combines the best qualities of documents and computers.
Electronic ink is made up of millions of tiny caplets, or "microcapsules," that are filled with a light pigment and a darker dye. When these capsules are charged they change color, and they can easily be programmed to create different images. The ink is overlaid onto a sheet of plastic film which has had transistors embedded into it, creating a computerized display that is as thin and flexible as a piece of paper.
"The potentials of this technology for sales and marketing usage are so promising," says David Anderson, of Anderson Consulting in Cambridge, Mass. "You could use digital paper instead of regular paper and be able to instantly update product lists, catalogs and brochures, custom configure handouts and price sheets for each account on the fly, remotely change marketing material directly from the home office and transmit it to the sales team in the field-the possibilities are endless. Just imagine all the things you now do on paper-and then add the ability to computerize and network them. It's a technology that's worth watching very closely."
J.C. Penney is involved in the first tests of electronic ink signs and has installed the product in its Marlboro, Mass., and Chicago stores. Text messages are transmitted by paging devices connected to the back of each sign, allowing marketing people to instantly alter messages to advertise specific promotions. The Marlboro store reported that sales of women's sports clothing rose by about 30 percent when it ran a series of promotions on the e-ink sign during a recent weekend.
The tryout was so successful that Penney has now installed the signs at 10 Penney-owned Eckerd drugstores in Florida, Texas, Georgia and New Jersey.
Al Crossman, vice president of merchandising at Eckerd, says, "With these displays we can immediately update the signs in our stores around the country from a single location, allowing us to better inform our customers of special promotions and sales."
Yahoo! is also using electronic ink in its advertising. The company has hired people to wear the digital paper displays like old-fashioned sandwich board signs.
"People are interested when they see my sign changing," said one Yahoo! "walker." "Most folks seem to have taught themselves to ignore advertising, but this is a real attention grabber."
So how soon can you expect to add electronic paper to your sales and marketing arsenal? Realistically, in about two to three years.