2010.35 | Self Service User Experience

I visited the Henry Ford Museum this weekend, and can’t recommend it enough.  The museum provides an incredible view into the progression of technology from the industrial revolution to the near present.    The museum houses an incredible collection of cars, bicycles, trains and more.   If you haven’t been, you need to go. 

Some of the most interesting displays to me were those pertaining to retail.  They have an entire 1940s diner called Lamy’s – including an NCR cash register and vending machine, a full neon sign from McDonalds from the 1960s, and even a complete hotel room from an iconic Holiday Inn from the 1970s.  Studying history does a great job of reminding us of our roots, and for providing context for the present, and visiting this museum certainly did that for me.   While on one hand, it reminded me that we have come very far, it also indicated that we may have lost some very engaging and exciting elements of self service solutions and the retail experience.

What brought the experience component to my mind was the Mold-A-Rama machine I encountered near the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile on display.  This retro vending machine made a plastic molded toy of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile before my eyes in about 1 minute.  It was a delight to watch!  It had sixties styling, impressive looking gauges, and a bubbled window to display the inner workings as the machine made the toy by injecting plastic in a mold.  You could even watch the toy pushed by a little metal rod as it fell into the little drawer for pickup.   The toy is delivered still warm into your hands for the low price of 2 $1 bills fed into the machine. 

There was also a cigarette vending machine in Lamy’s Diner (See the National logo at the bottom in the image) that had awesome styling and great kinetic feedback.  Having a mechanical handle directly under the item of choice that you pull gives the experience a tactile and direct feedback that involves the user more than a touchscreen of items or a button that feeds to a circuit into a magic box.  It was a throwback to my youth and the mechanical experience of the gumball machine and the pay telephone.

I was reminded of how commonplace the transactions via self service have become over the years.  Since self-service has become so ingrained in our society, we have become so accustomed to these machines that they have become invisible.  This invisibility is certainly a missed opportunity to connect with our collective customers and bring them a new and pleasurable experience instead of a chore. 

Today’s consumer is certainly more sophisticated than the targeted customers of these machines, and life is more complex (age verification on the cigarette machine, anyone?), but there is still an opportunity to build on today’s self service experience. 

As of late, I am aware that numerous vendors and retailers alike are working on ways to engage our collective customers while providing them the speed of transaction and ease of use that they have come to expect.   One great example I recently highlighted is a vending machine in Japan that utlizes a large screen on their vending machine that replicates the look and feel of an older model machine with product behind the window.

Another excellent example is a new ATM design made through a partnership of organizations, including my employer NCR.   Have a look at the video and watch the animation on the screen of the ATM before the cash is dispensed.  For some reason this small change to the interface puts a little thrill into the transaction that our human nature cannot resist.

Engaging our customers is always the right thing to do.  We always need to be learning, and new ideas come from surprising places.  Let’s hope we can learn from the past to make tomorrow’s self service not only a useful experience, but a pleasurable and exciting one as well.


2010.34 | Canadian Retailers and Social Media

Update:  Permanent page with ongoing updates is available.

If you have been wondering what Canadian Retail organizations have been doing with social media, you’re probably not the only one.  Having spent a fair amount of time looking across the board, the use varies widely.  From squatting on a name, to full fledged use of multiple platforms with engaging conversation and offers specific to the audience on a platform, many retailers are feeling their way through the process and validating what the return is on using these platforms.  The common denominator is that everyone is experimenting, and given the low barriers to entry here, we can expect some exciting ideas to come out.   The new announcement regarding Facebook places last week should give the whole situation a new twist as well – adding where to the mix.

I’ve compiled a list of Canadian retailers with links to their respective social media sites.  The brands that seem to be doing the most so far are the ones that have a community of interest already, such as Holt Renfrew, Best Buy, lululemon and Chapters Indigo.  The thing I find so interesting is that consumers essentially have to seek these sites out.  Few of them are staring you in the face when you are on the web or looking at billboards, and yet some of them have incredible numbers of followers or fans.  175,000 people ‘like’ lululemon on Facebook as of August 20, 2010.  132,000 ‘like’ Aldo.  These are people who want to be publicly affiliated with a brand.  What an incredible opportunity for any business!

Have a look at what’s going on and weigh in on your opinion.  Who is doing well?  What’s working?  Let me know if you would like to see other retailers or platforms added to the list.  I plan on posting this chart along with more details on followers as a permanent page, though we can’t really rely on that as a measure of value added.   Let me know your thoughts on what you would like to see on a permanent page!

You can also see a presentation I put together including some recent examples of social media usage by retailers here.

  Facebook Twitter Flickr Youtube
Aldo [] []   []
Ardene []     []
Banana Republic Canada [] []    
Beer Store   []    
Best Buy Canada [] [] [] []
Blockbuster Canada [] []    
Body Shop Canada [] []    
Bouclair   [] [] []
Browns Shoes   []    
Chapters Indigo [] [] [] []
Cineplex [] []    
Empire Theatres [] []    
Fido Mobile   []    
Gamestop Canada [] []    
Gap Canada   []    
H&M Canada [] []    
HMV Canada [] []    
Holt Renfrew [] []   []
Home Depot Canada   []    
Home Hardware   []    
Home Sense [] []    
IGA Quebec   []    
iTunes Canada [] []    
Jean Machine [] []   []
La Senza [] []    
L’Occitane Canada   []    
lululemon [] [] [] []
Mastermind Toys [] []   []
McDonalds [] []   []
Mountain Equipment Coop [] [] [] []
Old Navy Canada [] []    
Planet Organic [] []   []
President’s Choice / Loblaw [] []   []
Rona [] []    
Roots Canada [] [] [] []
RWandCO [] []   []
Sears Canada [] []   []
Sobeys [] [] [] []
Toys R Us Canada [] []    
urban fare [] []    
West 49 [] []   []
Whole Foods Oakville [] [] [] []
Zellers   []    
zip.ca [] []    

Note: For some context on followers, see my list of twitter accounts with followers here.

Update:  Permanent page with ongoing updates is available.

2010.33 | Drive Thru Technology

Given North America’s car based culture drive thru is a crucial and often the largest part of any QSR business. Adding the logistical challenges of the outdoors and queued vehicles to the already challenging job of taking orders, fulfilling orders and accepting payment is no trivial matter.  There are many areas where new technology is being leveraged – sometimes in unexpected ways – to deal with this challenging pursuit for QSR operators.

Digital Menu Boards – With costs for hardware decreasing, incredible consumer acceptance of digital screens everywhere, and the capability to update screens and signage in any way at any time remotely and consistently, moving to digital menu boards is a logical step for QSR operators, assuming they can establish an ROI.  There are some excellent points both for and against using this technology, but assuming a reasonable ROI, expect these to slowly take over.

Ordering Kiosks –  It’s not surprising that the leap would be made from digital menu boards to an actual kiosk that one can order from in line.  A few organizations have built some promising solutions and are piloting.  I’m a self service user and proponent, but I’m torn on the question of kiosks in drive thru environments given the potential complexity of the operation.  My experience with self service is that it generally takes longer to use a kiosk like this to order than just saying what you want.  Mileage may vary depending on your business, but consider the time to speak the order “One large double double, please!” to at least 3-4 screen touches to just buy one coffee.  The touchscreen will be much slower.  Now consider a family carload and their constantly shifting of orders and special requests (Where’s the button for extra ketchup?)  Add that to hundreds of cars streaming through a drive thru, and you’ve got significant reductions in throughput, and a potential traffic problem as cars back out into the parking lot or onto the street.  QSR operators would need to carefully understand the impacts of their menu and their customer base to implement a solution of this sort. 

A potentially more efficient solution would be an integrated solution to a mobile device that would allow customers to pick all of their menu items on their phone.  With all menu items entered, the order can be saved on the phone, and displayed as a 2d barcode.  When the customer arrives at the kiosk in their car, they scan the 2d barcode at a reader on the kiosk, and the entire order is displayed on the screen for customer verification.  This means 2 button pushes, as well as the avoidance of a scratchy speaker discussion that the kiosk was meant to provide in the first place.  It also means the capability of upsell on the screen which could merely slow down the ordering process in the self serve kiosk instance. 

Payments –  Contactless via NFC was supposed to be the wave of the future (forgive the pun), but my experience has been that even if the drive thru is equipped with NFC readers, the cashiers act puzzled when you wish to use them.  Much as people claim to want to use it, NFC has not been embraced, and there are no indications of changes to consumer behaviour.  It’s more likely that new cars with their increasing array of technological wonders will work this out for us as outlined in QSR Magazine.  It would make sense to enable one’s car to leverage payments based on pushing a button for a drive through scenario, and as the article says, the cars may even direct us to our favourite restaurants.  Perhaps the payments will be made via Facebook, with more and more businesses selling directly within Facebook, Facebook credits and mobile ubiquity coming together to simplify the process.

No matter what technology is leveraged, it will be key to consider simplicity, speed, and integration in any solution.  Any technology or process change has to be dead simple so that the process is as easy as today or easier, or it will not be embraced.  Changes have to ensure speed is not sacrificed for technology’s sake.  The bar is high, and customers are used to fast service.  Slow it down, and they will move to a competitor.  Integration will become increasingly important given all the different ways in which consumers can interact with a business.  It is important to bring all of these interfaces together to gain the full understanding of a customer for a business, and to allow them to interact with the business in the way they choose.

2010.32 | Wine Vending

I was surprised to see wine vending kiosks being trialled in the US given all of the barriers to self service dealing with products like alcohol, but apparently Simple Brands are implementing a solution in Pennsylvania.  There have been related solutions like the wine tasting counter at Metro AG, and there are self serve wine vending systems in at least one bar in Japan, but it is surprising to see this sort of solution so close to home, and further to see a state run liquor board use them to extend their reach to venues beyond the state stores themselves, versus a state where liquor is not required to be sold in a state store.

Considering recent attempts at legislation in California to ban alcohol sales at self-checkouts which was defeated, you can expect this sort of solution to be controversial.

Any discussions around self service with liquor control organizations in Canada is likely to meet with incredible skepticism and caution, given Canada’s penchant for government control over alcohol.  There is quite simply a great deal of risk in providing ‘unsupervised’ access, and understandably, no organization or individual for that matter, wants to erroneously provide alcohol to an underage or inebriated person given the potential dire consequences of such an error.

While self-checkout systems are supervised and require an intervention by a live attendant to verify age and sobriety, the wine vending system uses technology to do it.  Customers must scan in identification and provide a quick breath of air into a breath analyzer to validate that the client is not inebriated.  There are also cameras mounted on the system for an additional precaution – cameras which appear to allow a centrally located call centre associate to monitor purchases and clients visually.

Experience dictates a potential backlash around privacy, given that a drivers license or other ID has to be swiped at the same time as a purchase is made.  Add a breathalyzer to that mix, and it might turn some people off.  I would also be interested to see how the bottles are released for sale.  The door opens remotely with a purchase, but it’s not clear how the shelves secure the individual bottles.

Vending has worked for beer in the Czech Republic and in Japan, but those countries are generally far more liberal in their alcohol laws than in North America.  If it can be done for pizza , ice cream, french fries, medical marijuana and cars, it can be done for wine.

(I was joking about the cars.)

2010.31 | Stores + Internet + Mobile + Recommendations = Sales

When I saw this Shopkick demo last night on how to connect mobile social media tools with the real world in a Best Buy, I was very intrigued.  Being able to check in without having to push a button could allow for a better experience for the user, though it does remove a level of interactivity or opt-in that pressing the check-in button on foursquare has.  In a way it’s that whole ‘making a game of it’ scavenger hunt aspect that has brought the social media and the real world together.

Shopkick does present a really interesting opportunity for messaging directly to customers based on their physical locations that has been missing until this point – given the shortcomings of GPS accuracy.  While removing the final barriers between the internet shopping experience and the store experience is huge, there is still the real challenge of what offer to make to whom.  All of the demonstrations I have seen so far are for coupons and discounts – great for pulling in customers (and for demos to be fair) – not so great for the retailer’s bottom line.

I look forward to seeing how recommendation engines can come into this.  If I walked into a store and the retailer knew my preferences for books or movies, they could suggest a purchase to me that I may not have thought about in real time.  This would be of more interest to me personally than a discount on something i may not want, and would be presented to me precisely when I’m looking.   I just read a fascinating article in Wired on just this subject.  It discusses various recommendation engines and their stories, and focuses on hunch – a site that is trying to build the infrastructure that could be connected to the mobile devices to deliver on the vision I just suggested.

It will be a fascinating process to see how retailers feel out this technology, and I applaud retailers for being pioneers.  Seeing Starbucks with offers on foursquare, and now Shopkick with Best Buy should lead to additional experimentation, and increased understanding of the potential of these technologies.

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