Demand for unattended kiosks rises amid COVID-19 pressure

By Peter Alcock, Head of Product Marketing, NMI 

When we emerge from our collective quarantine, we’ll never again take for granted something as simple as going to the grocery store to pick up a carton of milk. But once authorities determine it’s safe to resume day-to-day activities, we’ll probably rethink many of our daily interactions — from high-fiving colleagues for a job well done to collecting change from the £10 note we hand the cashier at the convenience store.

The behavioural changes introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic create a valuable opportunity for us to rethink the retail purchase experience. As businesses of all sizes, from boutique retailers to chain stores, navigate the changing preferences around in-person interactions and transactions, unattended technology solutions are emerging as a potentially universal solution for all sectors moving forward. 

In-store shopping after social distancing

Despite social distancing orders, consumers are still permitted to shop at essential businesses (think supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware stores). To maintain operations, many of these businesses eliminate infection points by offering pick-up or delivery options. Given the current state of social distancing, consumers are also going online to shop for necessities and other items — e-commerce spending in the U.K. was up by 12.5% in March compared to 2019 and reached a record high of 22.3% for all retail during the month. 

But what will happen when social distancing orders subside and non-essential businesses open their doors again? Shoppers will return, but it’s likely their long-term shopping and spending habits will be forever changed. With consumers reducing social interaction, will they crave face-to-face service in stores or will convenience and cleanliness win them over and make consumers gravitate toward a zero-touch purchasing process? 

These are important questions that will reshape the retail landscape in the months ahead. To stay ahead of the curve, non-essential businesses need to start planning now for the return of in-store shoppers by finding ways to reduce physical touchpoints and creating a safe shopping experience through the use of unattended solutions, like kiosks and vending machines. 

The shift toward unattended retail payments

A recent survey found 87% of U.S. shoppers would prefer to shop in stores with contactless options, or at least more self-checkout features. And in the U.K., where contactless adoption is ahead of the U.S., cash usage halved within days as shops and banks agreed to raise the limit for contactless payments. Vending machines and kiosks offer a unique opportunity because they allow consumers to pay by card while avoiding interaction with a sales assistant — taking an additional physical touchpoint out of the purchase experience. 

Unattended service stations also offer a contactless payment option. The difference is that they improve safety by eliminating physical contact with a touchscreen and allow shoppers to quickly tap their card or even smartphones to complete a transaction. Although the standard usage instructions are “tap to pay,” in reality, consumers can bring their device close to the pay station without actually making contact. It’s important to note that opportunities for contactless payment experiences aren’t limited to large retailers — 27% of U.S. small businesses have already seen an increase in customers using contactless payment methods like Apple Pay and Google Pay.

As consumers return to regular in-store shopping routines, they will embrace kiosks and vending machines, especially those offering contactless payment options to eliminate the exchange of physical money or cards and human interaction — common retail activities that contribute to the spread of the virus and other contaminants during transactions. Whether in a shopping centre, at a grocery store or even at the airport, these vending machines and kiosks give consumers the convenience and cleanliness required post-pandemic. 

A safe and speedy experience

The push for faster and more convenient retail purchase experiences isn’t new. Prior to the coronavirus, e-commerce led many consumers to trade face-to-face interactions with sales associates for the speed and convenience of shopping online or shopping on their mobile devices. In a post-pandemic economy, kiosks, especially those in brick-and-mortar stores and supermarkets, allow shoppers to retain the experience of exploring items in-person, while reducing the number of physical touchpoints, and improving the speed and convenience of the purchase process. 

So, how can your business integrate contactless payment options into your operation ahead of an eventual surge of in-store shopping? Thanks to IoT technology, it’s not as hard as it may seem. While the IoT doesn’t necessarily enable new processes, it makes the things we do easier, payments included.

For example, kiosks and vending machines equipped with IoT technology allow both remote management of the unit — so the operator can monitor parameters like stock levels and temperature — as well as the online authorisation required for card payments. Some card readers now incorporate a SIM so transaction data can be passed directly to the payment gateway via the internet, for authorisation by the bank.

Self-service checkout kiosks situated throughout traditional stores or even in completely cashierless stores could allow consumers to scan items, tap their card or phone, and leave the store without being in close proximity to a sales assistant. Similarly, QR codes enable shoppers to scan items on their phones, complete transactions and have items delivered directly to their homes without physically interacting with products on the shelf. 

Unattended kiosks go beyond in-store shopping 

While the introduction of kiosks and vending machines into in-store shopping experiences is a priority for traditional retailers, grocery stores and other businesses should also consider the consumer experience beyond the physical store. 

For example, many multi-storey car parks require drivers to interact with a ticket barrier when they enter, keep hold of the ticket for the duration of their stay and then interact with a paystation or exit barrier to leave — the driver inserts the ticket and pays with cash or card. But like the kiosks available for in-store payments, parking pay stations can also provide drivers with the option to simply tap a card or smartphone at entry to initiate the parking payment and then tap it again at exit to complete the transaction. 

As contactless or Near-Field Communication (NFC) advances, we may soon see the introduction of car parks that do not require any exchange of payment. Instead, number plate recognition and RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags on vehicles will allow drivers to simply drive in and out of cark parks, similar to the Amazon Go experience.

Taking unattended payments a step further, kiosks can even create opportunities for increased charitable giving. “Tap-and-go” donation kiosks that accept contactless payments create a frictionless experience for people who want to make charitable donations in shopping centres, restaurants, street corners or other locations. In fact, when Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal, the Bristol Children’s Hospital charity, implemented unattended contactless donation points around Bristol during a fundraising event, it saw a 309% increase in donations.

At the end of the day, consumers crave seamless and unique experiences, from their first brand engagement to their final transaction. As we slowly resume normal buying routines, a new layer of sanitary awareness will become part and parcel of day-to-day activities like shopping in stores, parking our cars and giving back to our communities. 

Although much of our new normal is out of our control, we can control the amount of contact it takes to perform these common, everyday activities — and the businesses that will succeed are the ones that are able to reduce the number of touchpoints between locating an item on the shelf and walking out the door with it. 

About the Author
Peter Alcock has over 25 years experience in technology marketing, joining Creditcall (acquired by NMI), in 2000 from a Swiss telecoms company. A versatile marketer, he has held several management positions within the company and is responsible for product marketing and content creation. He has particularly broad knowledge of unattended payment solutions in parking, vending and kiosks. Pete is passionate about music, is a part-time live sound engineer, and has a home studio.

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