Better selling through kiosks

Basil Hawanchak, vice president/chief financial officer of Levin Furniture, wanted to change the credit application process at the Smithton, PA-based chain of 12 stores. Customers applying for credit had to verbally provide an employee with such information as their place of employment and salary level. While these are standard questions on credit applications, some customers were uncomfortable answering them.

So in 2003, Levin worked with San Diego-based Apunix Computer Services to design a credit application kiosk. Customers now can head to one of two kiosks in each store to key in their information. Or they can swipe their driver’s license or a credit card through the machine, and the kiosk will automatically take the information from the card to populate its database. Either way, customers can privately apply for credit in minutes.

What’s more, Levin has been able to eliminate the work of about 1.5 employees at each of its locations, and the average ticket price has jumped about 10%. “We achieved our ROI in a matter of months,” Hawanchak says.

Levin isn’t the only merchant to use in-store kiosks for credit-card applications. According to the 2005 World Interactive Kiosk Markets study by research provider Frost & Sullivan, credit applications, along with gift registries and similar retail services, accounted for about 27% of all kiosk deployments. Self-checkout kiosks, which were measured separately, accounted for another 28%. Photo, banking, government, and travel kiosks were among the remaining applications.

Before it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Lakeside Camera & Imaging in Metairie, LA, used its five kiosks for photo processing. The kiosk area reflected the fact that most customers were moms printing pictures of their kids. “It was almost like a living room,” says general manager Ginger Gauthe. The section was carpeted and furnished with comfortable chairs and hooks for purses.

Within six months of Lakeside’s adding the kiosks, sales of digital prints increased about 30%. At the same time, because these customers were doing their own printing, the staff’s time was freed up to help other customers, and overall sales volume in the store increased. “I would say that one kiosk would pay for itself in about three to four months’ time,” Gauthe says.


The broad range of uses prompts the question “What exactly can be considered a kiosk?” As more companies deploy them, the definition has expanded to include ATMs, vending machines, and interactive touch screens, says Sylvia Berens, Ph.D., vice president of sales and marketing with Apunix. Berens also heads the best-practices committee of the Self-Service and Kiosk Association, an industry group based in Louisville, KY. The feature that distinguishes kiosks from other devices, she adds, is that customers must interact with them.

For a kiosk to be effective, you must first determine its objective. Is it to capture sales that otherwise might be lost, or to help customers obtain information on products? Do you want the kiosk to improve customer service or to serve as a promotional tool? The answer should influence the way in which the kiosk is deployed.

Case in point: Skechers placed a kiosk in its Times Square store to extend the brand, says Mark Daggett, creative director for the Manhattan Beach, CA-based footwear merchant. To that end, Daggett and his colleagues created activities to engage shoppers, many of whom are tourists. For instance, customers can use the kiosk to take pictures of themselves in the store, overlay messages like “Lost and found in New York City,” and e-mail the shots back home.

The kiosk hasn’t significantly boosted sales — but that was never a goal. Rather, it has become a fun destination for consumers. Since its installation at the end of 2002, Skechers has filled two hard drives, each holding several gigabytes of memory, with photos. “It’s really popular,” Daggett says.

If Skechers had wanted to capture sales via its kiosk, however, it would have had to link the kiosk with its databases of product, customer, and inventory information, says Laura Naylor, vice president of marketing for Natick, MA-based software provider CommercialWare.


Once you’ve settled on the purpose and uses of the kiosks, you have to assemble an infrastructure that will effectively link the kiosks to the rest of the company’s information systems. Fortunately, high-speed communications networks are more readily available, more reliable, and less expensive than they were a few years ago, notes CommercialWare product manager Erik Holm.

Satellite is another option for transmitting content from corporate offices to store kiosks. Satellite connections offer a fixed monthly cost for a specified amount of bandwidth, no matter how many locations you send content to, says Greg Hurt, vice president of sales and marketing with Microspace Communications Corp., a Raleigh, NC-based satellite services provider. Satellite connections typically become cost-effective for companies with at least 50 locations, although that varies based on the type of content and the frequency with which it’s updated.

Finally, you need to choose appropriate kiosk hardware and software. Berens identifies several categories of kiosk software. One simply converts the company’s Website to a touch screen. Though easy to implement, the resulting kiosk tends to be clumsy to use, as few Websites are designed for touch screens. Browser tool kits are another option. These are software packages designed to integrate with a retailer’s other databases, as well as with peripherals such as printers. These are both robust and reliable, Berens says. Custom programming is also an alternative. This can be expensive, but it often makes the most sense for large deployments that focus on a specific task, such as airline check-in.

When it comes to hardware, the kiosk should meet retail standards, says Jeanel Carlson, product marketing manager with Dayton, OH-based solutions provider NCR Corp. Numerous shoppers are going to bang on the keyboard, spill beverages on it, or even try to pull off the buttons. Standard PCs are unlikely to withstand the rigors of everyday use by the public. In contrast, “retail hardened” devices, all-in-one solutions that include the processor, the touch screen, and the barcode reader, are built for rough use, Berens says.

Another hardware option is what are known as kiosk appliances. These are built on a solid-state environment; that is, they contain no moving parts. They also feature embedded operating systems specifically crafted for self-service.

Or you could go with a “thin client” approach, in which the processing operations are contained within a central location, and the kiosks essentially become terminals, says Jeff McNaught, vice president of marketing operations with Wyse Technology, a San Jose, CA-based provider of thin-client solutions. Thin-client kiosks can be had for several hundred dollars. PC kiosks, on the other hand, are closer to $1,000 each.

A thin-client approach won’t work with all applications, however. Photo printing and other tasks that use a great deal of processing power, for instance, are usually better suited to PC-based kiosks, says Brad Rowland, director of marketing solutions with Wyse.

You also have to decide whether to buy the machines or lease space to a company that owns and operates them. With the latter option, maintaining and updating the technology is the responsibility of the partner, says Rufus Connell, research director with Frost & Sullivan.

The number of factors to consider before deploying in-store kiosks may seem overwhelming, but working through them and implementing a kiosk program can definitely pay off. Just ask Hawanchak of Levin Furniture. “They offer a quick return on investment,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in them.”

Karen M. Kroll, a freelance writer based in Minnetonka, MN, has written for American Way, Compliance Week. and Inc., among other publications.

Dos and don’ts of in-store kiosks

Do place the kiosks where customers can easily see them yet won’t run into them as they shop. The space should be comfortable enough that customers will want to spend time there.

Don’t skimp on signage. To make sure customers can’t miss the kiosks, some retailers place second monitors above them, with ads that capture customers’ attention, says Craig Keefner, channel manager with kiosk provider Kiosk Information Systems: “When people look at the machine, they need to know what it does.”

Don’t rely on kiosks as a substitute for sales clerks. While many consumers are comfortable shopping online and via kiosks, “kiosks are not 100% self-service,” says Laura Naylor, vice president of marketing for software provider CommercialWare. “You want to provide the white-glove treatment.”

Do take into account requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act when configuring kiosk layouts, says Jeanel Carlson, product marketing manager with solutions provider NCR Corp. Touch screens should be accessible to those in wheelchairs, for instance.

Do restrict your kiosk’s Internet access. Unless you don’t mind customers using your kiosks to surf the Web and check their e-mail, limit access exclusively to your company’s Website. This is known as a controlled browser or browser wrap.

Don’t neglect to measure how, and how many, customers are using the kiosks in stores. This knowledge may prompt improvements in store merchandising. For example, unusually high kiosk orders at one store may indicate that it isn’t being stocked appropriately.

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