A successful signage program depends on consistency. Unfortunately, it can be the hardest factor to control. "We may have a big program rolling out for, say, Sept. 15. But how can we be sure that each of our 1,100 stores gets the actual signage program up by the specified date?" says Larry Brennan, senior project manager for Dallas-based J.C. Penney.

Such concerns prompted J.C. Penney to take an interest in research being conducted at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Scientists at MIT had developed electronic ink, a material with many of the same properties of traditional ink, but with a technological twist that puts it light-years ahead of anything found in a fountain pen.

On the surface, electronic ink looks simple enough, but suspended in the liquid are millions of tiny microcapsules filled with a concoction of dye and pigment chips. The tiny pigment chips react to electrical charges, causing the color and shape of the ink to change after printed on any one of a variety of surfaces, including paper, film and plastics. By linking a printed electronic ink display to an existing wireless paging system, researchers were able to send certain electronic signals through the display from a remote location, changing the message without touching or even going near the display.

When the commercial possibilities of electronic ink hit home in 1997, E-ink Corp. quickly formed in Cambridge, Mass., to market it commercially. Target markets for the product include consumer electronics and publishing, but E-ink decided to start out with retail displays. Intrigued with the technology's possibilities, J.C. Penney was first in line to test electronic ink displays on the retail front.

"From the retailer's perspective, electronic ink struck our fancy because we can change the message at the selling floor level at all of our stores from a single control center," Brennan says. "We can adjust the message for certain demographics, such as for the morning, lunch or evening crowds."

In May, J.C. Penney rolled out its first electronic ink prototype sign at the company's Solomon Pond Mall store in Marlborough, Mass., a Boston suburb. The sign, 3mm thick and measuring 6 feet by 4 feet, was placed in the store's sporting goods department. It featured alternating text promoting basic sale items and gift certificates.

"The first rendition was fairly simple," says E-ink marketing director Lisa Merriam, who helped coordinate the J.C. Penney tests. "It was two-color and text only."

Whoever owns the sign determines what will appear on it. "It's controlled by a piece of software available on an E-ink web server," Merriam says. Someone can log on, write messages, and schedule them to appear at certain intervals. They can even set the system up on their own server."

With an appearance much like ink on paper, signs made with electronic ink are easier for shoppers to read than the liquid crystal display (LCD) panels widely used in shopping centers, Merriam says. Electronic ink also offers a contrast ratio that allows the sign's message to be visible from any angle.

Another advantage is electronic ink's low power usage. "While other display technologies require a constant flow of energy to keep their message in place, electronic ink requires only a tiny amount of power, and only when it is time to change the actual display," she says. Once the electricity stops flowing, electronic ink will hold an image for weeks at a time without any additional power.

As for price concerns, Merriam says an electronic ink signage program offers superior flexibility at the same cost as a traditional one. "Once you've printed your regular signs, you're stuck," she says. "Those American flags for the Fourth of July can't become pumpkins for Halloween. Take the J.C. Penney program, for example. A paper rendition of their E-ink sign costs $200 per unit. E-ink signs cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Depending on how often you change the signs, the price difference evens out."

When J.C. Penney's consumer intercept testing proved positive, the company decided to try E-ink's signs in different venues. A sign at a Chicago location kept a running tally of local baseball hero Sammy Sosa's homeruns. >From there, the program moved to the juniors department at the Northeast Mall location in Hurst, Texas, where the signs will highlight item-of-the-week promotions until September 2000.

J.C. Penney gave the signs an attitude adjustment to make them speak to teen shoppers. "We wanted to put the signs in a department that attracted more attention," Brennan says. "We've now rented signs from E-ink featuring two animated characters involved in a conversation about Levi's. At this point, the sign is more of a conversation piece used for mood and atmosphere than as a sales tool."

At the current level of development, electronic ink can change color up to 10 times per second, good enough for animation. "To allow video rates, the ink needs to shift at least 60 times per second," Merriam says. "Our researchers are already working on that. We're also collaborating with Lucent Technologies to create higher-resolution graphics, and by 2000 we'll have more colors available." E-ink's signs are currently available in combinations of blue and white, red and white, and black and white.

Though J.C. Penney touts the success of the E-ink tests, the company still hasn't committed to invest in signs for its locations nationwide. But the future looks bright for E-ink nonetheless. The company recently closed $15.8 million in total equity financing from a joint venture including communications behemoths Motorola Inc. and The Hearst Corp.

E-ink is not the only company to pursue electronic ink applications. However it is the first to actually get a product up and running. Xerox Palo Alto Research Corp. is working on its own version of electronic ink, to be marketed under the name Gyricon. After this month's soft launch, E-ink's signs will be tweaked and available for mass distribution by February 2000.