Viewpoints

New In-Store Kiosk Tests Limits of Self-Service

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The supermarket industry has employed technology for some big in-store advances over the years. But for every technology that hit a home run, others failed to work or mesh with the store environment.

A new wine kiosk program in Pennsylvania is the latest bid to advance consumer convenience through technology. However, its complexity and lack of human involvement puts its potential success into question.

Pennsylvania is an alcohol “control state” that runs a network of 619 wine and spirits stores. It has been criticized for outdated liquor sales practices, and has been trying to bring more convenient solutions to customers, including expansion of state liquor store hours and the opening of some state-run stores connected to supermarkets. In its latest venture, the state plans to test in-store kiosks stocked with wine. This would make wine available in up to 100 supermarkets through kiosks operated by the state's Liquor Control Board.

This plan attempts to boost convenience and use technology to tackle some big problems: underage drinking and drunk driving. Here's how it works: A buyer inserts a driver's license into the kiosk so age information can be processed. The photograph on the license is matched with a video image of the buyer at the kiosk and confirmed by a remotely located state employee. A built-in breath sensor checks sobriety by providing an instant blood alcohol reading. If the customer is cleared for age and sobriety, he or she can purchase wine using a credit card.

Got it? Now, if this all works and solves the problems at hand, I'll be the first to applaud. But I see a number of hurdles here. First, in a retail environment, anything that can go wrong often will. For example, some observers in California have questioned whether common retail self-checkout systems are successful in locking when alcohol is scanned, to enable a store employee to check identification and intoxication levels. Presumably, a complex wine kiosk without any in-store human interaction could face its own unique set of operating challenges.

Another problem I see involves the Pennsylvania kiosk's underlying message to consumers: We value your patronage, so we are servicing you through electronic means and monitoring you via facial recognition and breath-sensor technology. Please enjoy your selection and return soon.

True, modern supermarkets were built on self-service, but that can be taken to an extreme. How do these kiosks match up with the supermarket goal of providing an exhilarating in-store experience and great customer service? These kiosks are not run by supermarkets, but that distinction may not matter to shoppers.

There are other problems to consider, and apparently it would be some time before this project sees the light of day. In the meantime, the Keystone State might want to research additional means of expanding availability of wine that would better fit with the environment supermarkets are building for their shoppers.

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Contributors

Julie Gallagher

Julie Gallagher’s delicious foray into coverage of the food industry was purely accidental. With a background in technology, she joined Supermarket News as associate editor of its Technology...

Mark Hamstra

Mark Hamstra is the editor of the Retail/Financial section of Supermarket News covering mergers and acquisitions, quarterly earnings reports, executive changes and other significant events and trends...
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