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A Message in the Medium

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The north end of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue — the Miracle Mile — is home to stores, restaurants and a dense concentration of hotels, including the Chicago Four Seasons and a shopping complex known as 900 North Michigan Shops.

Anchored by Bloomingdale’s, the 900 North Michigan Shops has access to a steady flow of affluent, discerning shoppers, both from its co-location with the Four Seasons as well as its placement in one of the prime upscale retail zones in the United States.

Despite this premier location, “One of the challenges we face is that from the exterior as you’re walking down Michigan Avenue, you might not actually notice that you’re passing a multi-level shopping center,” says Sarah Burrows, marketing director of 900 North Michigan. “We have seven levels, and the only one you can actually see from the street is the ground level. … if you don’t know otherwise, it almost feels like you’re walking into an office building.”

From one angle, this setup is ideal. Part of what’s being sold here is a sense of sophisticated urban luxury that involves elegant taste and exclusivity. Looked at from another angle, however, discretion and refinement must not conflict with the first commandment of retail: Thou shalt move the goods.

The classic bridge between high-mindedness and high turnover is signage. On New York’s Fifth Avenue, top-end stores may have tasteful, restrained interiors, but the entire building might be painted to look like a gift box with a two-story high logo.

For a number of reasons — not least reluctance by the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association to allow that type of exterior signage — this approach isn’t an option. Instead, Burrows and her colleagues have installed a large, high-resolution digital display — a pair of video kiosks on either side of the escalators — just inside the entrance, clearly visible to passers-by.

“We need to encourage people to explore the property and see the depth of retail we have,” Burrows says. “To do that, however, they have to take a lot of escalators and weave their way around. What we really brought the video display on for was to have something that would enable us to execute a way-finding program — but in a way a little more creative than, ‘This way to the elevators.’”

Educating the consumer
Beyond just getting noticed, the signs needed to convey some fairly specific information. “There are 70 shops in the center,” Burrows says. “A lot of them are national brands — Gucci, Max Mara, Michael Kors — but we also have a lot of eclectic unique boutiques that are independently owned, plus we have a lot of stores that might be the only location the retailer has in the Midwest, or even the only one in the U.S.”

As a result, “There’s an educational process that needs to happen with our customers,” Burrows says, “and what we’ve really used the screens for is creating beautiful displays that don’t just say a name. We can’t just put up ‘Karen Millen’ or ‘Genevieve Lethu’ because that doesn’t mean anything to anyone. … This way we can illustrate what that store is with beautiful photography and video — and again, help encourage people to come in and explore the shops.”

To convey these messages, 900 North Michigan Shops turned to a video system from a relatively new company. Prysm’s proprietary technology, laser phosphor display, uses lasers to excite phosphors, causing them to emit red, green and blue colors as required by the image being created. According to the company — which refers to light-emitting diodes, liquid-crystal display and plasma screens as “legacy technologies” — LPD is the wave of the future. “It is superior in terms of color consistency, resolution, scalability, overall image quality and operating cost,” says Prysm CEO Amit Jain.

It has definitely won friends at 900 North Michigan Avenue. “I think the displays are bringing people in,” says Burrows. “This is new for us, and we’re learning what content is most effective. We also needed to educate our retailers so that they would cooperate, and we’re still working on that — but I think it has been beneficial. It does catch people’s attention.”

Reaction from the tenants, meanwhile, has been extremely positive. “They’re happy that we’re pushing the needle and activating that first floor in a way that is unique and high-end and that represents them well,” she says. “Everybody wants a presence on the ground floor — the high-level retailers are always asking how they can do that — and this gives it to them in a very controlled and positive way.”