Putting Kiosks to Work

Kiosks? Sure, we’ve all heard of them — aren’t they those electronic stands that people use to look up books they’re too lazy to search the shelves for or to choose electric egg poachers and napkin rings from bridal registries?

It’s true that electronic kiosks have been around for a while, and we have typically seen them mostly in bookstores and bridal-registry environments. But today merchants are using kiosks for ever-more interesting and diverse applications, and boosting sales, awareness, and customer loyalty as a result.

Take Fair Indigo, a multichannel merchant that sells fair-trade apparel and accessories. Launched this past fall, Fair Indigo sells via catalog, a Website, and a store in Madison, WI, and it’s planning to add two to four stores a year. In its store, customers can take an item to the kiosk, which is a tiled cubby with stools and a computer monitor, scan the barcode, and instantly get the scoop on the product’s background: the facility it was made in, reviews of the product, and even in some cases a bio of the person who created the product, all pulled from the company’s Website.

“We use the kiosk to integrate the experience,” says Julie Krbec, Fair Indigo’s manager of retail. “Customers have really responded well.” The kiosk cost the merchant about $1,000, she says, which includes the monitor, the PC scanner, and the software but does not include programming.

Then there’s Cellular South, a Jackson, MS-based provider of cell-phone service in five southeastern states. “We were looking for a way to alleviate the lines in our 80 brick-and-mortar retail locations,” explains Rob Mason, systems integration manager at Cellular South. “We had so many people waiting in line to pay bills, and we wanted a way to move people out of the lines.”

The solution was to install about 75 kiosks that take bill payments. The kiosks, which accept cash, credit cards, and checks, can get a customer in and out of the store in about a minute and a half, which is slightly less time than customers spent on average when they had to stand in line. Not only that, but the kiosks have freed up the staff to concentrate on customer service.

Kiosks can serve as a marketing tool, a receptacle for bill payments, and a source for details about products that are in the store. Kiosks can also make customers aware of items that the store sells but are not in stock, enable them to make special orders, give them directions to the item they’re looking for, let them check prices, help them choose a gift from a registry, and more. Kiosks can even be used by multichannel merchants that don’t have brick-and-mortar stores: “There have been some cases where they put kiosks in malls and nontraditional environments to test the traffic,” says Gavin Finn, CEO of Maynard, MA-based Kaon Interactive, which produces the v-OSK kiosk. “If you’ve developed a solid online brand and it’s recognizable, you have the ability to capitalize on that brand in those high-traffic areas.” The v-OSK ranges in price from $5,000 to $12,000, depending on size and quantity.

Read on for advice from the experts on how to determine whether a kiosk is right for your business and, if so, how to get the most from one.


Instead of looking at 27 types of kiosks to see if there’s one that might work in your business — and becoming bewitched by the sheer technical coolness of them all — consider kiosks from a problem-solution viewpoint. “The right questions to ask are, What are the key business problems the retailer needs to solve, and are there applications that address those specific problems?” says Finn. “If there are, those are the ones worth looking at. It’s a problem-based investment.” For example, in the case of Cellular South, the company had the problem of long lines when customers came in to pay their bills. Other retailers can’t fit all the products they offer into their smaller locations, so they use kiosks to let customers shop their full lines.


Kiosks work best in retail establishments whose customers are savvy about how to use things such as touch screens, keyboards, computer mice, track balls, scanners, and Websites (depending on the type of kiosk you would implement). “Part of it has to do with the demographics of their main customers,” says Joan Broughton, vice president of content and education at Shop.org, which is part of the National Retail Federation. “The people who were customers of REI [an outdoor gear and clothing merchant that uses Website-based kiosks; Broughton worked there for six years] tended to feel very comfortable with technology, so they accepted using the Website more than customers of other retailers might.” Of course, instructional signage helps teach customers to use the kiosks, but you do need to keep your customers’ demographics in mind when deciding whether to implement kiosks and which type to use.


Your selection of hardware, software, and peripherals (such as scanners and printers) will depend on the function of the kiosk, says Stephanie Kropkowski, director of marketing and sales at York, PA-based Analytical Design Solutions, which produces KioWare Kiosk Software. If your kiosk will be handling sensitive information such as credit-card numbers, you’ll need to think about security. If the kiosk is meant to sell products, you need a way to grab the customer’s attention. Where your kiosk will be located will have an impact on which hardware you choose; for an outside kiosk, wood may not fare as well as injection-molded plastic. Figure out the function of your kiosk before you approach vendors about a solution.


The most exciting and advanced kiosk won’t help your business if customers walk by without noticing it. That’s why it’s key to monitor the traffic in your retail location and place the kiosk where people tend to walk, and to attract the customers’ attention to the kiosk. “The reality is that many kiosks aren’t used because customers don’t know they’re there and they don’t know why they’re there,” says Finn. “You need signage and marketing to educate the customers so that they’ll know what it is when they see it. Consumers need significant visual cues — big arrows, big words.” You can also attract customers to the kiosk with an “attract screen cycle” that rotates through graphics meant to draw the customer’s eye when the kiosk is idle.


Security is another issue to consider. You don’t want people hacking and cracking their way into the software. And if your kiosk operation is based on your Website, you don’t want customers using your kiosk to shop the competition — or worse. “A lot of them have issues with people going off the company’s Website and onto the Web,” says Broughton. “You have to be careful to limit access to your Website.” Another example is printers; those that print out sensitive information need to be locked within the kiosk, according to Kropkowski.


One thing many retailers forget is that real people will be using their kiosks. So they design a kiosk that seems to be a perfect solution to their problem — like a money-taking kiosk for bill paying — and are surprised when customers put quarters into the credit-card swipe (thus shorting out the machine), insert counterfeit bills, use SpongeBob SquarePants checks that the machine has trouble reading, and generally don’t use the kiosk properly. “Whatever you can dream of, there are probably 10 other things to consider,” says Cellular South’s Mason. “It leaves nothing to the imagination what the user will do to these things.” Creating easy-to-read instructions and explicit signage helps, but you should also brainstorm all the ways that customers might misuse your kiosk — keeping in mind, as Broughton says, that kids are attracted to anything with a screen — and then ask vendors for solutions.


It’s imperative to make the kiosk easy to use for customers. “If it’s not usable by the customer, it’s like a piece of furniture people don’t use,” says Fair Indigo’s Krbec. “Make it easy to get information.” For instance, Fair Indigo’s kiosk has signage in the nook that tells customers in easy-to-understand language how to use the scanner and the monitor.

What’s more, the Fair Indigo kiosk is located near the cash register so that a store sales associate can easily identify and help customers who are having trouble. In fact, don’t neglect to train staff in the ways of the kiosk so that they can help confused customers (as well as handle such minor emergencies as running out of paper in kiosks that print out information).


“Check out companies that are renowned for their gift-registry kiosks such as Linens & Things, Bed Bath & Beyond, Crate & Barrel, and Sears,” advises Shop.org’s Broughton. These leaders in kiosk use can give you ideas on placement, signage, and other issues.

Used correctly and in the right environment, kiosks can enhance your customers’ experience of your brand. “Companies can deliver a consistent experience at every touch point,” says Finn. “It helps with customer satisfaction and loyalty and all that good stuff.”

Concord, NH-based Linda Formichelli has written for Call Center Management Review, Nation’s Business, and USA Weekend, among other publications.

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