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In these times of constant change, kiosks are not ushering in a self-service trend in retailing but opening the floodgates. Cameron Bayley looks at what kiosks are offering sellers and buyers now, and where this might lead.

For many, choosing wine comes down to price and whether the label has any of those nice shiny medals. And if we’re lucky, there’ll be a connoisseur on hand to guide us. Thanks to the growing popularity of retail kiosks in the market, luck will become reality in local bottle shops.

One of the latest retail kiosks on the market, The Wine Expert, can tell you anything you want to know about a wine: such as its history, whether it goes with beef or chicken and it may even make a meal suggestion.

As retail kiosks come to town, big changes lie ahead for the retail landscape. "People will get more and more accustomed to using kiosk software," says Steven Bach, business development manager from Abuzz Technologies, creators of The Wine Expert and several other retail kiosks. "Realistically, it’s still in its infancy, there’s a lot further to go." Overseas, kiosks are burning CDs in cafes, taking your resume in fast-food restaurants, letting you pay your gas bill, and projecting your body shape into your chosen pair of jeans. Locally, Qantas self check-in machines are helping us jump the queue, and Sydney’s Red Room stores dispense DVDs from kiosks around the clock.

"Kiosks are a brilliant way of adding to the shopping experience of increasingly time-poor customers who want information or assistance in making their buying decisions," says Lenore Harris, from the Australian Centre for Retail Studies. "Today's customers are becoming more demanding in what they expect from their in-store shopping experience, particularly in regards to product knowledge."

Bach says the current push is for information-based kiosks, with clients such as Sydney’s Bondi Junction Westfield using Abuzz kiosks to help their customers navigate through the shopping centre. "Rather than using the static signage that shopping centres are accustomed to getting in, they are looking at interactive wayfinding solutions which are bit more engaging and dynamic for shoppers."

Kiosks can find a place in most retail stores, says Bach. As well as the ‘wayfinder’ kiosks for shopping centres, other popular trends for kiosks are product locators, used by some Kmart stores, which can help you find your purchase without trolling up and down aisles. Woolworths is piloting a kiosk that will not only show you the product, but can advise on recipe information or suggest complementary add-ons to the product you’re looking for.

According to Bach, more and more retailers are looking to implement loyalty programs with the help of kiosks. One of Abuzz’s latest developments is a kiosk for use in pubs allowing users to accumulate points based on money spent or winnings on poker machines, with the kiosk redeeming these points.

At the moment you’re most likely to come across a retail kiosk the next time you want to develop happy snaps from your latest trip. A recent study found that almost a quarter of all kiosks installed around the country were photographic. This year’s winner of the Telstra Small Business of the Year was Whitech Software Solutions, whose photographic kiosk software is sold through Fujifilm Australia, Konica Minolta, Kodak Australasia and each of the 80 Rabbit photo stores in Australia.

Choosing Services

If a retailer is considering using a kiosk in their store, there are a few things they need to keep in mind, says Bach. The most important is narrowing down exactly what you want it to deliver. "Retailers come in with all these different ideas. They want to provide information on their products, wayfinding around their stores, they want it to be a loyalty system, dispense cards, collect emails, the list goes on and on," says Bach. "They should consider maybe four or five ideal services they’d like to provide and then boil down to one primary reason."

The visual impact of having a kiosk in your store is something which must be taken into account. Retailers need to consider how a kiosk will affect traffic flow, and how its proportions will affect other signage.

Making sure the kiosk doesn’t look too daunting, especially to older customers, is always a concern, and something Abuzz takes into account when coming up with a kiosk solution for a client. "We don’t just focus on the IT," says Bach. "We predominantly focus on the type of user, the demographic, that’s our biggest thing." They refrain from having external keyboards or anything on the periphery that might be intimidating or look like it requires an IT degree to operate. "We want to shy away from something that looks too technical. When we’re developing the software we do something that’s quite engaging, that’s very, very, user friendly."

On the other hand, Bach says, you don’t want a kiosk that will keep people glued for hours. The key is to have enough information but not enough whizzes and bangs that people, especially children, will want to play for hours on end.

New Directions

Active ImageThe future of the kiosk, as Bach sees it, is going to develop as customers become more accustomed to them. "I think everything’s going in a self-service direction," says Bach, "which will result in a lot more self-service kiosks in the retail environment."

Harris agrees: "You only have to look around at the number of self-serve kiosks available in photographic stores now compared to a year ago to get a sense of how quickly technology takes off once customers start to embrace it." Further overseas research shows retailers feel self-service kiosks are second only to instant messaging as the technology that meets customers needs, more than email or phone self-service.

Bach admits that retailers are becoming more open to kiosk solutions, after initial hesitation. "They were cautious to start with," he says. "A lot of companies did not want to be pioneers in this industry." However, with the success of photo and ‘wayfinder’ kiosks, things are now starting to change.

Retail staff have also shown hesitation about the introduction of kiosks. "There is a danger that sometimes staff can feel threatened by kiosk solutions, particularly relatively low-skilled staff," says Bach. "But it does allow them to focus on more service-oriented tasks."

Harris feels kiosks are a necessary step to match the flow of information that already exists courtesy of the internet. "Customers now often know more than sales assistants by the time they come into buy," she says. "Astute retailers are tapping into this by ensuring their staff and customers have access to this type of knowledge when they are in the store by utilising kiosks to offer that extra layer of value. While face-to-face conversation with a sales assistant will still always be important, many customers are happy to be self-sufficient when it comes to gaining more information."

And it’s not only about making things easier for the customer, says Harris. "Some retailers overseas are taking the notion of a kiosk a step further by equipping their sales assistants with hand-held PDAs [personal digital assistants] that give access to information about a range of products, enable comparisons and provide information about stock availability," she says. "In this case, the role of the sales assistant is enhanced by the technology so that they have a greater level of confidence and are better equipped to help the customer. As I understand it, this type of technology will shortly be available in Australia."

However, as Harris points out, while the introduction of kiosks is another progression in the retail industry, the bottom line remains the same as ever. "It is all about the retailer adding value to the cus
tomer’s shopping experience so that they keep coming back," she says.

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