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FrontRunner Technologies' Nathan Elliott stands in front of a Firefly display on Ossington Avenue in Toronto.

FrontRunner Technologies

In the Big Apple’s Manhattan district, windows are starting to play a much-more significant role in driving the marketing initiatives of prime retail space.

In vacant windows and storefronts across the city, passersby are being drawn in by innovative video displays. But pedestrians in one of America’s largest cities have no way of knowing that that fascinating video content is being transmitted from a studio in Regina and marketed by a company in Toronto. While many marketing professionals may have seen this as an opportunity to sell to the end consumer, FrontRunner Technologies’ chief executive officer, Nathan Elliott, didn’t. Out of a Regina studio, he’s helped create campaigns where the information and images were carefully selected to pique the interest of a property manager or potential retailer in a specific vacant commercial space.

The videos shown on these window displays consist of a series of short ads, features and brief messages letting potential tenants know the space is for lease. Better still, the system simultaneously registers the reactions of passersby and creates an analysis of neighbourhood demographics.

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It’s a new approach known as “prop tech,” Mr. Elliott says, and it’s “a solution to rescue vacant commercial real estate from purgatory.” Mr. Elliott considers the vid-tech to be the commercial equivalent of a residential-home-staging specialist coming in to prep a property and make it more attractive to potential buyers.

Judging by the installation at Gap’s former Fifth Avenue flagship location – Mr. Elliott’s largest yet – his analysis might be bang-on.

Vacant store windows provide exceptional opportunities

FrontRunner has formed partnerships with major commercial leasing brokers including Cadillac-Fairview Corp., Cushman & Wakefield Inc., Colliers International, CBRE Ltd. and KingSett Capital Inc. The firm has also signed display-advertising-production contracts for brands including BMW, Adidas and Converse in store windows in six Canadian cities, and is now moving into the U.S. market.

The FrontRunner system invading New York is known as Firefly, and it coats the window of a vacant store with translucent film that acts as the screen for a high-lumen laser video-projection system. Mr. Elliott conceived the business concept for FrontRunner in Saskatchewan, but it took a partnership with Panasonic Corp. to get the system up and running.

“Firefly has a literal meaning [of] lighting up the night, [plus] the life cycle of a firefly is about a month, which is the life cycle of one of our media campaigns,” he says.

A Firefly installation can project seamlessly to the edges of windows as large as 10 feet high by 20 feet wide, and projectors can also be multiplied for larger displays of up to 100 square feet.

A FrontRunner display illuminates an empty storefront on New York's 14th Street.

FrontRunner Technologies

None of this was possible even three years ago, Mr. Elliott says, given the price of laser projects (which, at that time, started at $10,000 each and went up). But the passing of time often works in favour of technology, not just by improving it but also by rendering it significantly more affordable. Because laser projectors are so much brighter and longer lasting than conventional lamp projectors, there’s been a lot of effort put into improving them, and competition has brought the prices down substantially, he explains.

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The modular system can be installed in a storefront in little more than an hour. Once up and running, it connects by satellite to FrontRunner’s studio and research centre in Regina, which then broadcasts individualized content to each window. In addition to 5 per cent of the advertising revenue, landlords also benefit from valuable demographic data and audience analysis.

Collecting demographic data in real time

To collect the data, FrontRunner uses an analytics app called WindowFront. “We use equipment to collect real-time impression data,” Mr. Elliott says.

“Nearly all of us walk around with cellphones that are WiFi-enabled. We are able to ping the devices to determine in real time how many people have passed by the window. We are also able to log dwell time – how long people stop to look – and the number of unique and repeat visits.” The geo-fence can be set to scan up to 100 feet from the window, and FrontRunner uses different distances depending on the location.

“We layer that onto a computer vision camera technology that is anonymous but can determine if viewers are male or female, their approximate age range and their ethnicity. It also uses an algorithm that does ‘sentiment analysis’ that determines whether people seem happy, interested or indifferent as they watch,” he says. “We can share this data with media groups, but we can also share the information with cities, so they can understand how the public is moving through the space.”

Window displays translate into paying tenants

The video presence has proven capable of boosting interest in properties that have been lingering on the market. According to Dale Griesser, president of the Saskatchewan office of Avison Young Inc., a Canadian real-estate-services firm, a FrontRunner display that included a live CBC news and weather feed led to a tenant’s interest in a store at 1870 Albert Street in Regina, which had been vacant for eight months.

“The light and motion of their projections do wonders for drawing attention,” says Jackson Turner, urban leasing specialist for CBRE, an American real-estate-services and commercial-investment firm. He credits a FrontRunner installation with bringing more attention to a property at 338 Yonge St. in Toronto that had been on the market for six months. Two days after installation of the FrontRunner display, a potential tenant made an inquiry that resulted in the signing of a 15-year lease.

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As well as projecting video content, FrontRunner can collect demographic data on passersby.

FrontRunner Technologies

As of yet, there is nothing similar to FrontRunner’s service, says Sean Moran, senior director of retail services for Cushman & Wakefield in New York. He’s the broker for the Fifth Avenue address that was vacated by Gap in January, and he’s hoping to attract a new tenant with the help of Firefly.

There’s a lot of value in the ability to predict the demographics of the audience passing by, Mr. Moran says.

“From the brokerage side, it gives us data on pedestrian flow along the site that we normally have to pay for.” In the past, that meant hiring observers to tally crowds with clickers and clipboards.

“But FrontRunner provides all that market research for free. And the value to the landlord is it’s a way to monetize the empty space and make it more attractive than putting brown paper on the windows.”

Future looks bright for empty retail space

Mr. Elliott says the company is aiming to have 200 installations operating by the end of 2019 and hopes to increase that to as many as 5,000 by 2021 in cities across Canada, as well as in key U.S. markets including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

There may be permanent installations in the future as well.

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For several years, restaurateur Peter Morentzos had been scouting potential locations to open a Toronto branch of Montreal steakhouse Queue de Cheval, but had never been compelled to ink a deal. That is until one day, when he had just emerged from a meeting near a new building at 224 King St. W.

“There was a very beautiful video of what this space could be to a potential tenant,” he recalls. “I’d never seen anything like it before, and I started thinking about what I would do with this technology if I was in this space.”

Soon after, he had signed a lease and asked landlord Cushman & Wakefield if he could keep the display in the window. They connected him with Mr. Elliott, who agreed to leave the equipment in place temporarily, displaying videos of the Montreal steakhouse and announcing that the concept was coming soon to Toronto.

“I started to get an unbelievable number of people sending e-mails, text and Instagram messages asking, ‘When are you opening?’” Mr. Morentzos says. “It was not like we’re even that visible, we’re set back about 50 feet from the street behind some trees and sandwiched between the Royal Alexandra Theatre and another building.”

Although the display had to be removed to allow for the renovation of the space, Mr. Morentzos found the video concept so compelling that he’s thinking of incorporating one into the restaurant’s façade as a permanent fixture.

“As we get closer to the opening in November there is an opportunity to do a grand statement in our windows, and FrontRunner will be among the people I would call,” Mr. Morentzos says.

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