One way to look at the new Lexmark — the information solutions company, not the printer company — is to consider Lexmark executive Dean Sleeper.
In 1985 Sleeper founded AccessVia, a company that works in retail signage and information solutions. Lexmark bought the company to be part of its Perceptive Software subsidiary in 2013.
Sleeper, the vice president of global retail solutions, is not your typical Lexmark vice president. He bills himself as also being "The Very Potentate" on his Twitter feed, makes almost every day casual day and has a head of hair that could be described as an untamed garden.
When he discusses the company's digital retail signage initiative, the Seattle-based Sleeper says that the idea came to him on a beer run.
While in a store, he noticed all the store shelves with their rows of little tags, replaceable by hand, listing a single fixed price for the goods. Sleeper thought they were ugly and worse, ineffective.
Shouldn't there be a way that stores could change prices quickly on a variety of items with a system so simple that either employees of a local store, or managers at a centralized location, could decide what items to put on sale, and how much to charge for them?
AccessVia's spot in the Lexmark cadre of company acquisitions illustrates the company's shift of business philosophy: It's now not simply a printer company.
According to a description on the website of ReadSoft, the Swedish company for which Lexmark waged a prolonged and ultimately victorious battle in 2014, Lexmark is "a global technology company that creates software, hardware, and services that drive content and process automation by connecting people to the information they need at the moment they need it."
AccessVia partnered with Lexmark long before Lexmark finally made its move, in 2013, to buy the company and fold it into its Perceptive Software subsidiary but the familiarity between the two management teams boded well for future collaboration.
Tim Rowland, vice president and general manager of global industry retail at Lexmark, gives another example of where retail signage could be better: Consider a grocery store with a Super Bowl promotion on items such as soft drinks and tortilla chips. Then consider that the store ran out of one brand of soft drink a few hours into its promotion. How could the store quickly substitute another brand?
These days, the effort might take place on a piece of cardboard, with the name of one product marked out and another inserted in its place, Rowland said. Such an effort would certainly have some immediacy, but may also look slapdash.
But with the system that Lexmark is piloting, there's a standard graphic-intense electronic template that looks like a high-end poster: Simply take a few seconds to call it up, swipe a bar code to add a new product, and change the price. If you have an electronic display, you can change your special in less than a minute.
Ultimately, the system could be used to assign different prices to different customers. A member of a store's club could receive a different price, or a different price could be made to appear for customers who are part of a targeted promotion.
The ideas could also be used for menu boards in restaurants and cafés.
The digital end caps — the displays at the end of a store aisle — are now in a pilot phase with the 40-store Southern California regional grocery chain Superior Grocers. The digital signage combines "the classic Lexmark strength of smart hardware" with the AccessVia knowledge of retail, Rowland said.
That's emblematic of the ways that Lexmark is seeking to change as a company. Once the company was about printers. Now it's about how companies manipulate information on a variety of fronts, and print is one of them. But there is also digital information, record-keeping and even sales on soccer balls.
AccessVia and some of its employees remain in Seattle. Sleeper commutes to Lexington periodically.
The retail planning, organization and strategy happens in Lexmark's Lexington headquarters, Rowland said.
Lexmark/AccessVia is not the only player in the electronic retail display market. Companies such as eInk are also aggressively pursuing it.
And there have been false starts. First attempts to make electronic labels were unsuccessful, Sleeper said, because they were so ugly and hard to decipher. That's not a mistake that AccessVia and Lexmark will make in their upcoming products, which are graphics-heavy and eye-catching, Sleeper said.
Since 2010 Lexmark has been making acquisitions aimed at focusing the company on information solutions, not simply printers. Lexmark's appeal to retailers on the end cap project will lead the company onto additional developments, Rowland said.
"We think retailers are the most pragmatic buyers in the world," Rowland said. And at Lexmark, he added, "We love to shop."