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What’s Actually Going On Behind Retail Media Network Walls?

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Hey, subscribers! This is James Hercher of AdExchanger, with our latest dispatch from the intersection of commerce and media.

This week, we consider retail media networks (RMNs). Specifically, the inventory that’s behind many of these platform storefronts.

The retail media mystery box

American retailers now see themselves as media companies with their own ad impressions, audiences and valuable data.

But in their publisher guise, retailers are in a strange and giddy situation. They aren’t investing in content creation and yet still have more advertiser demand than they do worthwhile supply.


The net result is that RMNs are walled-garden-type platforms filled with a weird miscellany of inventory.

A first-time RMN buyer might expect impressions to come from search and sponsored product listings on, say, But retailers just don’t have that much traffic to sell – so they add programmatic extensions. Walmart defaults to The Trade Desk, Target’s Roundel has Index Exchange and Criteo and the list goes on.

But when trafficked through the prism of an RMN, open web campaigns become not so open.

Although there are often log files, there’s no ID, which means reach or frequency metrics must be taken on faith. Verification tech, such as DoubleVerify or Integral Ad Science, often doesn’t work, because the retailer platform blocks third-party tags from tracking its customers.

Advertisers may choose to trust retail media ROI numbers since they’re tied to sales – but RMNs are firing ads across the internet, sometimes with no auditability.

Retailers, meanwhile, are largely unfamiliar with the swamp of programmatic media. They zero in on following their own data and IDs without thinking much about the media, and often without the typical brand safety tech.

It’s a recipe for ads to appear in all sorts of unsuitable spots.

AlltomorrowsretailWhat else is back there?

Even with programmatic extensions and brand verification concerns, retailers are all about adding supply, supply, supply. They’re in a position to prove that impressions lead to purchases. Now they just need more impressions they can tie to those sales.

Volta, a company that manufactures electric car charging stations, has an RMN of its own called Volta Media. But part of the value of its ad supply is that the company offers a portion of those impressions to retailers to resell for their own RMNs in exchange for letting Volta set up charging ports in their parking lots.

Companies that sell ads on gas pump screens do the same with nearby convenience and grocery stores.

Then there’s music or audio that plays in the background of a store, which can come through a vendor like Mood Media or Vibenomics. (Actually, Mood Media bought Vibenomics a week ago.) These streaming audio ads join Volta’s digital out-of-home spots, other OOH placements, email ads and more inside the retail media mix.

And consider food store chain The Fresh Market, which launched an RMN in 2020. The company had more demand than its site could fill, so the chain created a monthly print magazine where it could serve ads as well. In that instance, RMN supply encompasses traditional print ads, too.

Hiding behind the sale

You might wonder how DOOH or in-store audio spots, which aren’t targeted to an individual, fit into retail media platforms that are ostensibly about connecting impressions to ID graphs and sales.

The answer? Sales.

RMNs do not have to make a deterministic link between an ad ID and a customer; they just need to demonstrate that media budgets contributed to a percent lift in sales.

Connecting advertising to sales in a general sense, as opposed to concrete individual purchases, unlocks new budgets for retail media.

PrimedTake Criteo, which is all about generating concrete individual purchases. Criteo just bought Brandcrush, a startup that manages physical in-store and experiential marketing. Physical marketing in and around stores is really “a green pasture for us,” Criteo’s GM of global enterprise, Sherry Smith, told me earlier this month.

But that’s strange to hear from Criteo, which serves ads that link to a product purchase page.

What is Criteo doing on a gas pump screen or dishing out free samples in a store?

According to Smith, in-store activations with brands and retailers “continue to evolve.” And that evolution will eventually lead to media channels that can’t be purchased like for like – such as open web programmatic, email marketing and DOOH – being attributed as a whole based on sales.

And retailers still haven’t come close to satiating their hunger for supply.

Earlier this week, the former director of product management for Google Search 360, Bashar Kachachi, launched an RMN tech startup with backing by ecommerce media OGs, including HookLogic and Flywheel Digital founders and execs. Its pitch to retailers? To add search and social media to their offerings.

Walmart Connect and Kroger Precision Marketing each added CTV supply six months ago. (Kroger previously had a data-licensing deal with Roku, but it was Roku’s platform making the purchase.)

These retail media evolutions put programmatic tech in a pretzel. Are we living in a world where Criteo will do physical retail and The Trade Desk will be used for buying TikTok and Snap?

In the latter instance, Walmart’s DSP, which is built on top of TTD, provides audiences and a managed service to buy across TikTok or Snap. So not on The Trade Desk, exactly – because retail media is a mess of pipework … but, still.

Although one RMN impression could traffic through Pinterest, Etsy and an ad tech vendor on its way to an advertiser, it’s “officially” being sold through a brick-and-mortar retailer’s walled garden platform.

And where does that leave advertisers? Looking at the closed drawbridge of retailer walled gardens.

There’s nothing wrong with sales-based attribution. But buyers will have very little sense of how much ad networking is happening behind those walls.

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