Automated kiosks are the future of retail, restaurants ... even roach coaches

A billion dollar industry is emerging to make checkout faster by removing human cashiers
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

If, like me, you spend your idle minutes browsing the pages of venerable pizza-related trade publications for the latest saucy gossip, you may have come across the story of a South Florida pizza entrepreneur who recently kitted out his food truck with an automated kiosk.

While doing research prior to buying the truck at the heart of Luv Pizzas, Bob Stephens learned customers tend to spend an unnecessarily long time at the window while making orders.

When Stephens walked into a local McDonald's, he realized the new automated kiosks were drastically cutting down on order times. He'd seen other kiosks cropping up at restaurant chains and supermarkets around town, and he thought his nascent business might benefit from the technology.

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Those weren't idle observations. A USA Technologies Kiosks and Retail report recently predicted the U.S. interactive kiosk industry will be worth more than $1 billion by 2020.

Between 2013 and 2016, imports of interactive kiosks from countries like Japan grew 42 percent, and the overall number of kiosks in the field grew 153 percent.

This week, Research and Markets declared "the meteoric rise of unattended retail." Taking into account the overall sector, which includes things like electric charging kiosks and those increasingly sophisticated vending machines that dispense a widening array of products and foods (salad ... really?), the firm predicts a $34 billion automated kiosk market by 2023.

All of which adds up to a future of quicker checkout for customers -- and the loss of a human touch even in brick and mortar stores.

For operators, the advantages are pretty clear. You can cut labor costs with kiosks while increasing efficiency and reducing error. Kiosks also give employees fewer opportunities to pilfer money, which is a big problem in retail.

(The industry has been less keen to advertise that advantage, as it smacks of blaming employees for their own obsolescence.)

One of the biggest up sides kiosks offer is the opportunity to mine data on inventory and customer behavior. As ZDNet's Larry Dignan outlined in a recent article, McDonald's is using kiosks as a centerpiece of its comprehensive AI strategy.

Wendy's is following suit.

Now the allure of kiosks is trickling down to proprietors of small chains and even single restaurants, a sign of the scope of the changes to come.

When Stephens, the pizza entrepreneur, made up his mind to install an automated kiosk in his truck, he turned to South Florida-based Grubbrr Systems International, one of myriad Point of Service technology companies that have cropped up and are vying for a chunk of the ballooning unattended retail market.

Like many automation markets right now, there's a bit of a Wild West feel in the space, with hundreds of companies offering a wide range of similar products for business of various sizes and types.

Grubbrr built Stephens a custom ordering system, the centerpiece of which is a touchscreen that's bright enough to work in outdoor settings and can safely be mounted to the outside of a Mac Tools truck.

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The whole system, including the touchscreen and a couple tablets an employee can use to collect orders from those standing in line, set Stephens back $3000. He also pays a monthly software fee.

He told Pizza Marketplace recently that so far the results are encouraging.

"We found that people will buy more because it's a touchscreen. They don't have to interact. They don't have to talk to the clerk."

The humanist in me mourns that loss of interaction. But for a business owner, it's clearly a happy development.

Whether you think so or not, the shift is well underway. In places like Japan, unattended ordering and checkout are already the norm.

Like so many other facets of life, the future of checkout, it seems, will be automated.

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