London Underground’s in-store advertising potential and what retailers can learn from it

Katerina Bukhvostova

Photo credit: Martin Addison, 
CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As you might have read from the news, our blog, or witnessed yourself, the Transport for London has recently carried out an exciting customer data collection project across 54 tube stations in the London Underground. While maybe not as exciting to the average Londoner as it is to us, this trial serves as an excellent benchmark for many businesses still concerned by the number of “issues” associated with in-store customer tracking. The British public sector was bold enough to go where very few retailers have gone technology-wise.. and you know what? Even without an official statement from the tube management, it is visible to the naked eye that the benefits are extensive both for TfL and passengers themselves. 

The short four-week trial was enough to define clear opportunities for putting crowding data to use in various areas of tube operations. My colleague Ed did an awesome job looking at how retailers can benefit from this project, long- and short-term, and compiled a list of key learning points. Make sure to check his blog post first if you are unfamiliar with the details of the project.

“Turning data into cold, hard cash”

Hugely dependent on the government investment plans, TfL has been undergoing budget cuts for quite a while and like any desperate and struggling with the increasing lease and staff costs retailer wants to turn things around. What became clear during the trial is that not only can the operational side be revamped - the commercial opportunities are massive as well. Who would say ‘no’ to some extra cash when the situation is far from pretty? Even if everything is running smoothly, it is impossible to ignore the advertising potential which has stretched far beyond print and digital media. 

Photo credit: Oxyman, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What we are talking about here is a gold mine for many physical locations, not purely limited to retailers or transportation hubs. The power of indoor advertising as a source of income is revolutionary and is bizarrely underrated in this day and age. Especially for the businesses that are trying to make ends meet. Store closures are a major problem for retailers, governments and staff. One of the main reasons why this is happening is the reluctance to change - just take a look at what’s happening in the U.S. 

What would happen if location analytics were in place, like in the case of the London Underground? The anonymous customer data on how passengers move around the tube can be very precise, so that management would know what the busiest times and spots are. Selling ad slots based on this analytics data (think of all those posters you see on the tube) could be an obvious first step towards monetising physical space. Implementing digital signage and adjusting advertising accordingly based on the size of the audience, changing the content to be more relevant depending on the time of the day - these are just a few examples of what can be done.

Photo credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

So what is it that is stopping in-store advertising from becoming widespread?

Does the idea sound a bit too complex or costly? Not really. For the record, TfL did not spend any extra cash on this project, as they used the Wi-Fi access points installed in 2012 during the London Olympics. The only reasonable explanation for this would be that it’s just taking some time, being very valuable time. 

Looking at the speed with which digital advertising is spreading across all areas of online media, it wouldn’t surprise me if your pet would soon be able to set up a Facebook ad campaign. Jokes aside, the transformation is drastic. Youtube advertising is evolving - this year they are introducing new, higher targeted measurement solution with the help of data from Google accounts. Social advertising is on the rise: according to the latest data by PwC and SAP, “more than 50% of consumers frequently engage on social media to engage with retailers, write reviews and direct complaints”. Even without these stats, we know it’s true as most of us are active social media users. What’s interesting is that online retailers do take things in - they are experimenting and going forward, they listen and fully realise that it is customers who dictate the channels now, not retailers.

There is nothing wrong with advertising as long as it’s done correctly. Consumers are smart, and they can spot sponsored ads but it doesn’t mean they are all intrusive, it is all about relevancy. And you do need data to stay relevant. Without digging any further, I will just give you one more example of physical advertising being personal and relevant. Think of an airport environment and how digital signage could be used to greet the arriving passengers in their local language, provide some necessary travel information and recommend (advertise) some great restaurants featuring their national cuisine if they happen to feel homesick. 

With physical retail being so far behind in this advertising game, there is no doubt that businesses will utilise these commercial opportunities in the very near future. The question is who is going to first to reap the benefits? For now, it looks like the British public sector is far ahead of the game.

To learn more about in-store advertising, I recommend checking these blog posts:

Maximising the value of store space through indoor advertising
The final mile in attributing advertising spend correctly 
In-store advertising is a giant business opportunity for retailers 


Walkbase provides a retail analytics solution for improving the impact of marketing on physical stores and personalising in-store shopping experience.