Unattended retail, as it is increasingly known, incorporates vending, kiosks, grab-and-go and other advances. And in this season of maintaining distance, the possibilities continue to expand.
Research released by the National Retail Federation and Forrester showed that use of mobile payment and contactless credit/debit cards has increased during the pandemic — though only a humble boost compared with other countries tracked. In the United States, 19 percent of online adults made a digital payment in-store for the first time as the result of COVID-19. In addition, 67 percent of merchants responding already supported contactless payments and 39 percent said the pandemic had put contactless in their plans to adopt and/or accelerated their plans.
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“Despite the fact that adoption is quite high, merchants don’t do much else to help consumer adoption along,” says Lily Varon, Forrester senior analyst serving digital business strategy professionals. Few respondents to the NRF/Forrester survey, for example, had in-store signage to educate shoppers that contactless payment was a possibility (or how to use it).
In terms of vending, Varon sees “massive opportunity” to incorporate contactless payment, even more than in scan-and-go or self-checkout. “Consumers are conditioned in that in-store environment to have some sort of confirmation/affirmation that they have completed their transaction, that they’re not going to be suspected of stealing something if they just walk out.” With vending, she says, “the conclusion of that transaction is getting the merchandise.” There’s not as much of a psychological hurdle to overcome.
Automation and aggregator platform Vendekin Technologies, based in India, offers a retrofittable plug-and-play device that turns existing vending machines into smart ones. It enables a smartphone interface for touchless purchases, as well as contactless digital payment. The company already has a presence in the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States in addition to India; a recent partnership will expand its reach further into the Middle East and Africa.
In California, cannabis has been considered essential business during the pandemic. GreenSTOP’s Smart Dispensary launched as a prototype in 2018, and opened two kiosks in the state this fall, each with the ability to serve four customers simultaneously. In the meantime, according to the company, it “automates compliance, helps with labor intensive endeavors, and brings the most convenient retail experience to the industry.”
ViaTouch Media’s VICKI goes beyond touchless efforts in the fight to keep workers and consumers safe. COVID-19 mobilized the company’s research and development efforts to introduce self-sanitizing technology in its machines. UV lights disinfect products inside after each use, so even if a consumer picks up and puts back an item, it’s automatically cleaned.
VICKI also has an AI “virtual attendant” to answer questions about products inside. Domenick Propati, chief strategy officer for the company, describes VICKI as more of a “standalone store” than vending machine. VICKI is aimed more at reclaiming employee time rather than replacing employees, he said, and has seen its greatest success so far with food and beverage, CBD products, toys and cosmetics. “I think we’ll see a lot of changes in traditional retail models,” he says. “And we’re at the forefront of those changes occurring.”
Vending solutions provider U-Select-It was already offering cashless and mobile payment, remote monitoring and pricing, real-time reporting, remote inventory management and more. It now also offers the Sani-Center and Sani-Center Plus PPE vending machines, with products like disinfectant wipes, latex gloves, medical masks, tissues, adhesive bandages and hand sanitizer. Not only do the machines provide customers with what they need, the company says; they also reduce face-to-face interaction.
Consumer brands’ efforts
Daily business/tech email newsletter The Hustle recently explored how lucrative vending machine ownership could be for individuals. The article reported an uptick in educational resources and mentoring for new owners and growth in a private Facebook group for newbies, particularly from underrepresented groups. Low startup costs and shifting mindsets have helped spur the expansion; according to the article, though, some vendors have seen significant dips, such as those whose machines are located at schools.
Soda fountains have been a decided casualty of the recent pandemic as companies and customers alike attempt to reduce touched surfaces. Coca-Cola has responded with a contactless Coca-Cola Freestyle solution that allows consumers to choose and pour via their phone, without needing to download an app or sign up for a membership. The mobile web experience was piloted in early summer; all Freestyle dispensers will be contactless-compatible by the end of the year.
KEEN, which adapted one of its footwear factories to make masks earlier this year, has also begun offering the masks through vending machines; they’re available outside retail locations in Portland, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif.
Chile-based Algramo, which began testing kiosks in New York City in August, offers refills of brand-name household goods like Clorox Splashless Bleach and Pine-Sol. At the first visit, the consumer purchases a standard container at the kiosk, one with an RFID chip and unique ID that links to the Algramo app. When it’s time for a refill, the consumer pays through the app and takes the container back to the kiosk.
It’s said to appeal to the eco-friendly as well as the cost-conscious, since they don’t have to pay for single-use packaging and can buy only as much as they need. Algramo, “by the gram” in Spanish, was founded in 2012 to help low-resource Chileans, and operates in more than 2,000 family-owned stores in Chile.