Customer-facing kiosks: Successes and pitfalls

If done right, they can help improve customer satisfaction with minimal IT investment.

Travelers on commuter rail systems sometimes have to wait long periods of time for the next available train. So it would seem to be the perfect opportunity for them to do some errands -- food shopping, for instance.

It's simple enough. They walk up to a special advertising panel on the train platform, take out their Apple or Android mobile device and download the Peapod mobile app. They can then browse virtual aisles of groceries and produce, scan the barcodes below the images of the items they want and, finally, place and pay for their order -- all online. Their items will be delivered the next day.

Ordering groceries on the way home has never been so easy.

Last year 15 commuter rail stations in Massachusetts became part of a national pilot program to test virtual stores for the food delivery company Peapod, which is owned by grocery chain Stop & Shop. Six other states are also part of the program, which was inspired by an experimental kiosk program by Tesco, in Great Britain.

Peapod Chicago
A Peapod virtual store display in a Chicago train station.

An industry in motion

While kiosks have been used in a variety of ways for several years now, the industry is still in its early stages, according to Howard Horn, owner and founder of Advanced Kiosks in Franklin, N.H., one of the country's largest suppliers of touch-screen display kiosks.

"New uses for kiosks are being discovered and implemented all the time," Horn says. Other observers wonder, though, if in today's mobile world kiosks are still a worthwhile investment or if mobile apps may be a better way to go.

The cost per machine depends on what the kiosk system needs to do, Horn notes. Each kiosk could cost as little as $3,000, or as much as $10,000 to $20,000. Things that affect price include printer options, scanners, cameras, size and type of monitor, and software.

Besides the machine's specific features, other important considerations include Internet connectivity, maintenance and training -- which should be minimal, at best -- and location, location, location, Horn says.

But the real key to success is "careful planning of how the kiosks will integrate into the organization's larger IT infrastructure," Horn explains. "How will data be provided to, and collected from, the kiosk user? How will users' interactions with the kiosk interface be maintained?"

That is exactly where many companies fall down, says Forrester retail analyst Adam Silverman. In his blog, Silverman wrote at length about how execution missteps can cause more harm than good.

"A few weeks ago I visited a new prototype store from a major U.S. retailer," Silverman wrote in August. "Expecting a customer-centric experience that seamlessly connects the digital and physical stores, I was disappointed to see what appeared to be a misguided omnichannel deployment, with an experience that was actually inferior to one without enriched technology."

Among the problems, he says, was "an inoperable kiosk staring right at me."

The overaching issue, Silverman explains, was that the various sales channels didn't work together, nor were the in-store sales associates trained appropriately. Used effectively, a kiosk can be an attractive and inviting portal to all the company has to offer beyond what is readily seen, with sales associates adding information about user reviews and more in-depth product knowledge.

Peapod: Use us anywhere, anytime

In the case of Peapod, so far, so good, the company says.

"We've had very positive feedback on the virtual store project," says Chris Allen, Peapod's Web project manager at the time; Allen has since left the firm. "Occasionally people have trouble scanning the barcodes, but for the most part scanning and purchasing products is incredible easy."

Peapod closeup
A closeup showing how the smartphone's app interacts with the Peapod display.

The program was designed to encourage consumers to download the Peapod app, and advance the marketing message that consumers can shop anywhere, anytime with Peapod.

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