Montreal's Stingray has built up a global business providing curated music channels for consumers on their cable systems and through streaming, and also for retail through in-store radio systems. But the company also has a fast-growing Business division that's focused both on shopper experiences, using digital display, and on shopper behaviours and interests.
Stingray has been most active in Canada, and particularly Quebec, but it is making moves to expand in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
I caught up with Renaud Lafrance, the Chief Revenue Officer for Stingray Business, to get a sense of how his group operates, the product offer and the state of the retail market as we start to come out of this awful pandemic.
We get into a bunch of things, including how retailer needs have evolved in the past year, and the value of analytics. We also talk about a big sports retailer's flagship, filled with digital, in suburban Montreal.
Renaud, thanks for joining me. Let's start by giving you background on what Stingray is all about. I spoke with Pierre from your company about three years ago, but it's certainly time to do an update.
Renaud Lafrance: Yes, David. First of all, thank you for having me on your podcast. I've read a lot of great things about it.
Let me give you a very brief summary of the Stingray organization: Stingray was founded in 2007. We're a publicly listed company as of 2015, and essentially, we're a business leader in the music and visual media in the world. There are essentially three business units of Stingray:
#1, Genesis is what we call our broadcast plus streaming app business. This is where you see many cable operators around the world, but let's say in the US operators such as Comcast, in Canada Rogers, and such where you have audio channels. And throughout the years, without many acquisitions, we've added other channels, other solutions, such as Quello, which is the Netflix of concerts and karaoke, we have the largest licensed karaoke catalog in the world, and we have different platforms for the karaoke, not just cable operators, but in the world of OTT (over the top) platforms such as Amazon, they're distributors of our content and Roku, Samsung TV+, which are using our audio and visual channels. Different products like NatureScape is one of them. If you ever have a Samsung TV or an LG, both are partners of ours. This is loaded directly into the smart TVs. So this broadcast/streaming app business is one of our units.
The second unit is Radio. We have a hundred radio stations, like old-style broadcasting. The third business unit is the discussion today. The one which I take care of is Stingray Business, which is all about in-store media solutions regarding music and digital signage and experience as well as insights.
You're a Montreal company and I think you got your start on the digital side by acquiring another Montreal company called Groupe VIVA. Is that pretty accurate?
Renaud Lafrance: Yeah. So since 2007, our Stingray Group Inc, we've done 48 acquisitions into different divisions, but in the distinguished business division, our first foray into digital signage was in 2015. Before that, we had acquired other commercial background music companies, but the digital signage, digital experience portion of the in-store media world started in 2015.
And yes, it was a local Canadian company called Groupe VIVA and then we also acquired another digital signage company called Novara Media out of Toronto, and we also acquired a company in Europe, in Benelux, which had a mix of commercial background music and digital signage, a company called DJ-Matic, and where we have a presence in the Netherlands in both Belgium, and we also acquired last year during the pandemic, our Mexican affiliate Basha, which has many large enterprise brand clients with digital signage rolled out in Mexico.
So is that kind of a strategy for the executive to grow through, at least in part through acquisition?
Renaud Lafrance: Absolutely. Stingray’s strategy is a growth twofold into user acquisition and also a big push in organic growth as well. The combination of the two.
So your streaming music business is global on the digital media side, the quasi digital signage side, is that primarily North American and more so than anything so far in Canada?
Renaud Lafrance: So just to give you a little context, we have around 125,000 locations. With one of our solutions or both or more than two in retail locations. So music, signage, business intelligence (what I would call insights) so we have a global footprint. So our strategy was really to become a global player and really take on global enterprise clients.
We have to have a footprint and not just the footprint, feet on the street with a full staff taking care of support, taking care of project management, taking care of curation, taking care of all the integration necessary for both signage and music, commercial music install. So this is why we have an office in Sydney, Australia for the APAC region, with a full team over there. We have the European team, the Mexican team, USA, Canada, and all our different offices have the signage capabilities, embedded with the commercial music to give a full in-store media solution package for our retail, brick and mortar clients in the different verticals that we operate.
But is it fair to say that a lot of your business to date has been in Canada and you're now expanding?
Renaud Lafrance: When we acquired the company in Europe, they had a certain percentage of revenue coming from signage. Mexico is, I would say 80% digital signage, but it's fair to say that like notable large clients like we have banks in Mexico with a full digital signage rollout, the largest pharmacy chain in Mexico also under digital signage and but of course, still the bulk now is Canada, but very quickly moving on to American brands as well as global enterprise brands for digital signage, as we speak.
And you did some sort of, I think it was a partnership more than anything else, with a US company called Space Factory, going back two, three months, yeah?
Renaud Lafrance: So the thing with Space Factory is that we started with the partnership with them, they're a veteran crew, a collective in the in-store media world. They'd been operating in the past 30 years in various different businesses that are well-known such as play networks and others. And we just combined our efforts to really launch our conquest of the American market.
As of Jan 1st, we exited our relationship with our partnership with Mood Media, where initially we were exclusive for Canada for commercial music and they were for the US. Now, this is over and one of the reasons why we partnered with Space is to accelerate our penetration in the American market with seasoned veterans. And again, we're always looking at tuck-in acquisitions and major acquisitions in the American market to further consolidate and further grow our in-store media business as well as we built and we're continuing to build a full organic sales team in the US and going after enterprise brands always.
So, I'm an end-user, I'm a large retailer in the US and I'm interested in what Stingray’s Space Factory has to offer. What all is it that you guys do? Do you start right at the consulting idea stage and take it all the way through to ongoing management? Or are there a start point and an endpoint?
Renaud Lafrance: I think with our unique blend of solutions, not just on the business side, but also on the consumer broadcast side, we have a lot of assets and we have a unique position, a combination that we can bring to the marketplace. I'll take Insights as an example.
As we bundle these, the media, music, technology, digital signage experience, Insights. Also, for instance, I'll give you a little more background on the Insights portion. We acquired a company last year called Chatter Research, and they've developed a very clever way to get feedback from retail clients, thus giving very sought-after information on customers. The way this is done in the retail world these days in the past years, often you go and shop or even shop online. You'll sometimes get a request to fill out a survey, go online, fill out a survey. What chatter has done through a proprietary AI engine is really a clever easy way to interact with clients to talk about their experience. We call it a conversation.
So if you're a purchase or an operator, with a QR code enabled through signage or through different media placements in a retail operation, you have a conversation with an AI text-based on your smartphone. Thus you're answering and the AI will look at 1200 inflection points. So instead of asking you questions, eight or nine questions. It's an open conversation. And then the AI captures this data and there's a dashboard with which retail management can really consult every second of the day, if they want real-time feedback coming in, classifying it and seeing what people really want or what's missing.
So this intelligence is I think, now a vital part of our whole in-store media solution offering and it also makes it another value add and something very distinctive as to bring to the business world.
Yeah. It sounds like a chatbot, except instead of it being for virtual stores, it’s for bricks-and-mortar stores.
Renaud Lafrance: Yeah, but it's more than a chatbot because it was really built for the whole retail marketplace and there's also a version online for a lot of our retailers that have e-commerce, especially these days in the pandemic. So it's not a chatbot, it's really focused on getting feedback from clients and really capturing all of that and building a dashboard, establishing the NPS (Net Promoter Score) and executives can have deep insight that they would never get with simple eight-question feedback.
This is very different, it seems from a lot of the retail analytics that has been marketed in the last three or four years.
I think I went to a show a couple of years ago, and the trade show floor was filled with companies selling AI-based, computer-vision based retail analytic, and I've not seen a lot of take-up of that stuff, so going out this way with an opt-in app basically seems very different.
Renaud Lafrance: It's very different. We've also had our different digital experiences with digital signage solutions using AI with facial recognition and so on, just establish with our clients what's working, what's not working with content, and so on, but this is really smart, simple, and conversational. And there's no app, by the way. It's just, you just look at the QR code, or you can just text the number and you start the conversation via text.
This has been an interesting 12 months, to say the least, and a difficult time for a lot of retailers unless they sell groceries or they're a big box or they sell liquor.
I'm curious: how the last year has been in terms of what retail needs are, what retail interests are in digital experiences in-store, has it gone quiet on you, or is there still a lot of interest or even perhaps more interest than there was in the past because things are so different now?
Renaud Lafrance: I will give you an answer based on geography because, in all our different countries where we have our retail clients, we have a different mix. For instance, in North America, we were lucky to have a lot of essential business clients, such as supermarkets, drug stores, banks who always stayed open. In other geographies, we have sometimes more of a mix of restaurants, cafes, hospitality, and so on. And whether it's Europe or Canada, the USA, or Mexico, a lot of them were shut down, and are still shut down.
But overall, we were very lucky to have enterprise brand clients and a good concentration in the essentials, and even the QSR clients, kept operating with a drive-thru, curbside pickup.
The second part of the answer to your question is yes, we are seeing the demand for new things. Signage whether it's signage that will be at the entrance of the store, look at store counts, people counts, like the whole messaging for COVID. Another thing that's happened along the way is on the audio side, the music side, because we have thousands of locations where we can broadcast messages, we've been broadcasting a lot of COVID messaging for our retail clients. Less visual but more audio, so you absolutely reach everyone that's in the store. So COVID messaging, health and safety, whether it's for the employees or for the general consumer walking in the store, that‘s been very popular, and even using our insights solution Chatter, we're getting a lot of new information from clients stating what they need, what they want, what they're looking for and what they'd like to see within the retail experience, the customer experience regarding visual content regarding less touch.
Are there still budgets out there? There are retailers who are prepared to spend or are they on hold?
Renaud Lafrance: Funny thing is a lot of retailers, and again, if you look at the focus on large global brands, whether to engage with a current vendor and they want to switch because some people in some companies in the industry have been affected, I’m talking about some of the competition, might not have as healthy a balance sheet.
And, it's very interesting to see the number of our fees and then the number of large deals that are currently in negotiation with major iconic brands around the globe that we are currently involved in. So regardless of, let's say 2000-3000 store global chain, won’t name a specific brand, but they are affected in different countries, but they are still looking at modernizing, looking at digital experience within the store, the customer experience.
We've been saying for many years that maybe the retail footprint will be reduced but the experience will be augmented. So the short answer, David, is that surprisingly does a lot of activity right now.
That's good. I'm also curious, there's been a lot of things written and a lot of speculation on things like panel discussions and so on about how retail has changed and how selling is moved to the parking lot, to the curbside that there's a big demand for personalization, that there'll be appointment-based shopping and a lot of the way that we do shopping in places other than big-box grocery stores and so on, will change as a result of all this. Are you seeing that at all?
Renaud Lafrance: I then we are seeing, and if you look at different verticals, I'll use the example of QSR, for instance, with certain QSR, forward-thinking brands, the proliferation of drive-thru, some drive-throughs are now two lanes, three lanes.
As we just mentioned, using a mobile app to pre-order delivery at specific spots within the curbside pickup. You're seeing multiple channels now open up and even in the discussion with someone autonomous cars delivering food, and we were involved with a signage portion within the car and also the feedback insights portion within that a delivery service that will be launched later by a major QSR brand.
You also mentioned some fully-automated stores coming online. You’ve seen Amazon Grocery, and closer to us, Circle K is also looking at the convenience store automation lab. We've also done a great new concept with a Canadian-based QSR chain called Recipe Unlimited, which holds around 1300 locations spread out over nine brands and they developed a new concept where all their brands can be served with one kitchen, and you pre-order, or you just walk in like a giant vending machine and there's no sit-down, you just pick up in your cubicle, the meal you ordered and you go home with it, but you have access to all the brands within one kitchen instead of going to different restaurants, obviously.
I'm using the QSR example, and then we could go on to different verticals, we've seen ghost kitchens happening. We've seen many different innovations coming up right now that we want to assist partners with these clients in helping them bring, in the QSR business, as I've stated before, they're also looking at experience: what can we do to have a unique experience? So more investment’s going towards experience and made into new experiences, into new delivery methods instead of a proliferation of a greater number of locations to serve their client base.
One of your colleagues, Martez sent me a video that showed a new store that you guys have worked on in suburban Montreal and out in Broussard that is a sporting goods store and you guys have done quite a bit of sporting goods stores. Can you tell me about this Sports Expert store and what the thinking was behind it? Because it's pretty ambitious and big.
Renaud Lafrance: This unique store, I think the square footage is around 65,000 and the owner-operator has currently 10 sporting goods stores under this banner, called Sports Experts, pretty much Dick's Sporting Goods in the US and yeah, we've been partnering with them for a number of years and the specific owner really believed in revamping to create more experiences and made a lot of multimillion-dollar investments within his stores, and specifically this large one where we supported them with unique solutions: LED interactivity, obviously our commercial background music embedded with a special playlist made for them, Chatter’s in there also, and it's really become like a flagship store, iconic store and the ROI is clear. Even if it was a substantial investment for the total store, the total footprint of the store. After it's been open now for a year and a half, sales are better than expected based on the considerable investment you made in that store, not just with our solutions, but with everything put together.
Sporting Goods is an interesting one. There's a rival Canadian chain that has opened a lot of big flagship stores as well and they've been to a point of amusement for me because they seem to want to throw everything, including the kitchen sink into the stores, in terms of visual razzle-dazzle, like there's gesture, there's interactive, there's everything, and I've walked through there and thought, and a lot of times, “I'm not sure why they did this.”
Are the Sporting Goods retailers getting a little more sophisticated in terms of what they do and why they want to do it and getting past the, just a pure visual excitement thing?
Renaud Lafrance: I think so. I don't know if you want to mention the banner or not?
(Laughter) Go right ahead if you want, or I can... Starts with Sport.
Renaud Lafrance: Oh, yeah. Okay. I'll use the example of the Sports Experts one where you have a refrigeration area as if you were in the Arctic, and you enter and you try some coats on and so it's not just digital experiences and it's unique.
So that's an example of what's making it different and unique, or you enter an area where there's rain so that you can test the rain gear and the permeability of different coats. And I guess if you look back in the eighties and nineties, the mall was at the centerpiece of social activity for a lot of teenagers and adults. Now we're seeing entertainment come into retail. We're seeing experience. As you were talking about the store near the greater metropolitan area of Montreal on the South shore, they are in an open outside mall. And you're seeing all these developments around entertainment in these openings, again, the pandemic and last year have stopped some of the development, but we all foresee this to continue on the experiential side melting retail, hospitality, entertainment, all in one.
Yeah. I've been out that way. I don't think the store was open at that point, but certainly, there are some great restaurants right in that immediate area. You've got some premium retailers there, it's not your average shopping mall.
Renaud Lafrance: No, and there are other real estate developments coming up across North America where you'll have concerts, like major hotels set up within the retail shopping area. They become destinations in themselves, maybe a precursor that is the West Edmonton Mall, but we see more and more of this and experiences are becoming very important.
Yeah. It can't be just a destination to go shopping because you can go shopping on your phone or on your desktop.
Renaud Lafrance: Exactly and I think, with our global footprint, we are very well positioned to really partner with these brands to bring these experiences.
So when you have the first meeting with a chain retailer, it doesn't really matter what they sell, just a chain retailer, and you have that first conversation, what do you ask them?
Renaud Lafrance: I think we have to understand the brand and what is their story, and what they want to create as a client business experience.
So I think the first part always is really understanding the brand and what the brand means to their client base. That is the first and foremost thing, and then after that, you get into the solution aspect, but that is the key item to really capture and I think a lot of people are skipping that part. And this is where you can come up with enduring solutions, instead of coming up with a lot of hardware where you've seen this many times where things were not well thought out and there is no content, there is no value, but there is some signage, there is some experience, but little value because the content was not really well thought, was a second thought to the whole hardware networking logistical piece of the digital signage operation.
And I think David you've been using examples of sometimes office tower lobbies where you've seen great content. I think the lobby, seating area of Netflix, you're immersed in some of their other shows, in their series. That’s using the complete power of the digital experience and creativity and really do something different.
Yeah, then you get the flip side where there's an office lobby and they put in a giant LED wall and they don't really seem to know why they did it and they just go out and find some 4K footage and run it on there. I can remember one in Miami that I saw and it was showing scenes from the Miami waterfront and the Miami waterfront was across the street from the buildings, I was like ”if I want to see that I'll go outside.” (Laughter)
Renaud Lafrance: Exactly, David. If you understand the brand, you understand the story, you can create a unique business experience for the client and I guess content and the way you draw the whole experience out is crucial.
All right, Renaud, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I really appreciate it.
Renaud Lafrance: Welcome, David. It's always a pleasure and good luck with your podcast. I think you have a great tool for our digital signage industry.