Unattended Retail

Not Your Grandfather’s Automat


Let them eat … unattended retail.

Remember those old automats from the 1930s, which thrived in major cities until the 1950s? Dimly through the recesses of memory, you may find a nod to Hemingway in a clean, well-lit place where food came shrink-wrapped through vending machines in a cafeteria setting.

That concept’s being updated — to use a phrase from a certain president-elect — big league. Unattended retail is proving flexible enough from a technological standpoint that it is helping to transform industries that range from big-box retailers to amusement arcades and is now making inroads into eating, drinking and merrymaking.

In the restaurant space, said USA Technologies CSO Mike Lawlor in an interview with PYMNTS’ Karen Webster, the self-serve concept is coming full circle, with one example coming from Starbucks — buying a product online and then walking into a store to pick it up, with minimal interaction between the consumer and the person behind the counter. In this sense, he said, there is the convergence between the traditional restaurants and the convenience space. “I can immediately walk into a convenience store … or even a traditional restaurant” and visit a kiosk, with mobile payments made from Apple Pay or Android Pay. The driving force behind this convergence extends beyond mere convenience to the consumer and cost savings to the restaurant, and Lawlor said, “as much as anything … it’s the consumer who prefers to do things by themselves. If a consumer can walk in, walk up to a kiosk, which she’s very familiar with, and enter the order and make a payment by themselves … that’s just the consumer today … Those restaurants and convenience stores that have embraced this are doing very well.”

As for hospitality, Lawlor noted that the self-service mindset has come to dominate many parts of the travel process, including the hotel experience, from kiosks that allow for check in to the ability to control that process even from within the room itself (and through mobile devices). The firms themselves have been able to reduce some of their cost structures, said the executive. Webster noted that a recent hotel stay led to an encounter with a beautifully decorated kiosk that offered all manner of treasures, from jewelry to clothing, all ready for payments and dispensing. The retailers of those items, the pair agreed, are looking for additional avenues of distribution, with presence in what Lawlor termed “nontraditional sales.”

Does all of this — convenience to the consumer, additional revenues to the companies and lower costs as it’s cheaper to run a machine than to employ workers — shake out to a no-brainer? One reason that firms have been slow to adopt the new methods of dispensing and payment, said Lawlor, is that there is a learning curve in place. For the consumer, even pop-up stores can be a lure, with the idea of 24/7/365 retail opportunities sating the impulse buy at any time. Lawlor said that his firm enables the payments, with conduits across debit and credit cards and mobile wallets. There is also help with telemetry, he added — a connection to a central network to monitor sales activity and machines out in the field. There’s also a third prong of consumer engagement at the point of sale, said Lawlor, and mobile payments and advertisements combining at the transaction to boost sales (mobile transactions, using Apple Pay advertisements, grew by 135 percent across that payment method).

The unattended retail space is evolving enough so that it may be an eventuality that “table for one” takes on a whole new meaning — no waiters, no chefs, no human interaction at all (and no worries about splitting a bill or calculating a tip).



The pressure on banks to modernize their payments capabilities to support initiatives such as ISO 20022 and instant/real time payments has been exacerbated by the emergence of COVID-19 and the compelling need to quickly scale operations due to the rapid growth of contactless payments, and subsequent increase in digitization. Given this new normal, the need for agility and optimization across the payments processing value chain is imperative.

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