Consumers handle most aspects of their lives via their smartphones — checking email, banking, ordering meals and, yes, even calling and texting. But when batteries run low, mobile devices suddenly become a lot less mobile, and consumers find themselves stuck by the nearest outlet — assuming they can find one. Until they get their phones recharged, they are left unable to do simple tasks, like summoning a Lyft or presenting a mobile ticket.
This has inspired various solutions for on-demand phone charging for consumers caught flat-footed and underpowered while far from home.
“Venues are frequently getting approached — whether it’s the bar or restaurant at a hotel, or a customer service agent at an Amtrak station — and being asked, ‘Where can I charge my phone? I need this service,’” said Jason Palmer, co-founder of MobileQubes.
The goal for MobileQubes is to let consumers keep roaming, as opposed to forcing them to stay tethered as they charge, while allowing them to use their phones or tablets right away. It also means businesses don’t have to contend with a hallway full of plugged-in customers — or with the liabilities involved if someone gets tripped over and injured. In a recent interview with PYMNTS, Palmer explained why turning this goal into a business required an efficient and unattended retail model.
Batteries to Go
MobileQubes offers kiosks where consumers can rent or purchase battery packs that they can walk off with and, in the case of a rental, return to any MobileQubes kiosk. Being able to walk away with the battery packs was an important part of the company model, Palmer said, because the purpose of a mobile device is defeated if users are tied to stationary charging locations.
The company has deployed more than 225 kiosks at locations such as transit hubs, airports and hotels. Its largest model holds 100 to 160 battery packs, while its smaller kiosk — which is about the size of an ATM — houses 60 packs.
Each battery pack is tracked with radio-frequency identification (RFID), allowing MobileQubes to tell when it is removed or returned to a kiosk, preventing customers from attempting to abscond with the device. Customers pay with cards and are charged a rental fee for the first 24 hours; if they do not return the device, they are automatically charged a lower fee each day they keep the battery. If the battery isn’t returned within a week, the consumer’s card is automatically charged for the full purchase of the item, minus the rental fees already paid. The customer can also choose to buy the item outright.
Different locations have different rental and purchase rate trends, Palmer noted.
“If [there is] a transit location where most of [the] customers in that space are daily commuters, there’s a higher return rate there versus, say, in Las Vegas, where the customers’ sentiments are that they are there to spend money,” he said. “There’s a bit of a higher purchase rate.”
The primary customer base appears to be 16- to 40-year-olds — in particular, professionals on the go — who typically use mobile devices as their main line of both business and personal communication.
Payment and Staffing
Customers are required to pay with EMV-enabled cards, which does open MobileQubes to chargebacks, Palmer said, while also noting that chargebacks haven’t become problematic. The company is considering enabling transactions via a mobile platform, but it has decided that cash is a no-go, for reasons beyond just disrupting the company’s daily rental fee model. The kiosks are in public locations, which makes cash a risk factor. On top of that, having to send staff to remove cash would cause operational expenses.
The kiosks don’t require much maintenance, and they automatically process and recharge returned battery packs. The inventory levels at each kiosk can be monitored in real time, thanks to RFID tracking, and when that inventory needs to be replenished, the kiosks send automatic notifications to staff members.
Having human staff available in a call center is still important for MobileQubes, as some customers prefer to speak to a live person about questions regarding the machines.
Placing the Kiosks
MobileQubes strikes deals with the venues housing its kiosks, which may include flat revenue share deals or leasing deals combined with revenue share options. For the business to work well, kiosks must be placed in areas with high foot traffic that are easily visible to passersby.
Before placing a kiosk, MobileQubes sends staff to evaluate the location to determine, for instance, whether the kiosk would be too hidden, or whether the economics make sense for seasonally popular locations, such as sports arenas, which have very high traffic only a few days a year.
Whether they’re sports fans, hurried commuters or tourists at hotels, today’s consumers are mobile-hungry — as are the businesses that serve them. Powering mobile-enabled commerce means keeping mobile devices powered, and relying on unattended retail to do just that.