Magazine Article | May 1, 2001

Kiosks Create Retail Opportunity

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Retail competition and improvements in technology are leading brick-and-mortar retailers to investigate what kiosks can do for stores and what it takes to install them.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, May 2001

In order to compete in the ever changing retail marketplace, brick-and-mortar stores need to find new ways to differentiate themselves from their competition. A new breed of customer is demanding more shopping options, while stores want to know how they can maximize the profit per square foot of retail space they already have. Luckily for both sides of the sales transaction, increased use of industry standards and technology advancements make retail kiosks an efficient and profitable possibility. But retail technology buyers beware that although your intentions might be good, a poorly executed kiosk installation is as good as dead in the retail water.

A Kiosk Of All Trades
Kiosks of all shapes and functions are popping up in retail environments around the world. Retailers are adding them to their sales staffs to serve as information lookup stations, places to fill out credit card or employment applications, entertainment, links to company Web sites, or inventory inquiry devices. "Some retailers use kiosks to capture what would otherwise have been lost dollars by keeping sales inside the store," said Robert Corbett, director of industry solutions, North America at Compaq. One example is a specialty retailer that uses kiosks to reserve out-of-stock sizes for customers. The in-store kiosks connect to other stores' inventory or to the company Web site, giving customers the option to pick items up at another store or have them delivered to their homes.

But when designing an in-store kiosk, retailers must have a clear idea of what purpose it will serve for store employees and customers. "In the end, the customer isn't looking at the kiosk. The customer is looking at the retailer. So, the kiosk should look like the retailer," Corbett said. But Corbett also warns that a kiosk should not directly mirror a retailer's Web site. "If customers are at home, they don't mind navigating the Web, but when they are standing in a store, they want things to be simple." ATM-generation consumers are used to dealing with machines and, in fact, many times prefer them to standing in line to speak to a store associate. But as quick as customers are to try a kiosk for the first time, they will be just as quick to retreat if it doesn't provide immediate satisfaction.

Kiosks Demand Quality Technology
A good rule to follow when installing kiosk hardware is quality over quantity. The fewer connected parts to a kiosk system, the less maintenance it will require, which is key when dealing with unattended technology. "Retailers should not put complicated hardware into a kiosk because then maintainability and reliability are reduced," said Mark Scheda, VP, marketing at Ultimate Technology. "A good option is to use a thin client device and then load programs and applications remotely over a network connection. This way, the content of the application can be changed remotely from the home office; all kiosks are updated easily and simultaneously."

Connecting the kiosks over a WAN (wide area network) can also make remote maintenance, either by the retailer's IT staff or the technology vendor, a more immediate troubleshooting service. "A few years ago when everything was proprietary, it might have been more difficult to think about kiosk technology; but with industry standards such as Windows 2000, SQL server databases, wireless technology, and WANs, it is much easier to cost justify," Corbett said.

Installing touch screens into kiosks is one way to keep the hardware aspect of the machines simple from both a consumer and a retail perspective. But retailers should not skimp when it comes to hardware. "We find that when retailers test pilot kiosks, they might start out with a less expensive monitor, but when they finish the pilot, they choose a higher priced one because they want image clarity, durability, and reliability," Corbett said.

As more retailers embrace the possibilities and technology continues to advance, consumers are not only going to appreciate the self-service machines, but demand them. Retailers should think of kiosks as an electronic crew of sales people available to service customers. Just make sure your crew is well-equipped and ready for action. Non-functioning technology may prompt customers to find a kiosk that works - and it might be in your competitor's store.

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