While there are some segments of the retail economy that are enjoying what can only be described as boom times, for most retail — particularly physical retail — times are slow. Consumers advised to stay in and prevent the spread of contagion are doing just that — at the expense of merchants selling goods like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and items that aren’t shelf-stable, whose shops are empty.
And that big chill, USA Technologies Executive Vice President Anant Agrawal told PYMNTS in a recent conversation, has even extended to unattended retail players.
“The reality is that unattended retail is also taking a big hit. When you think about places where unattended machines and kiosks pop up, the reason is obvious — places like workspaces aren’t getting traffic because people are working from home,” he said. “Traffic at airports has come to a standstill, so unattended retail concepts like Best Buy’s electronics kiosks, for example, aren’t selling.”
The good news, noted Agrawal, is that as grim as the current situation has been for all but a handful of players, it is also temporary — people will eventually go back to work, return to airports and, on the whole, resume living their lives out in public. And they will emerge even better trained for self-sufficiency now that the eCommerce transition has already kicked off.
All of that creates the perfect environment for next-generation unattended retail offerings, said Agrawal — which, properly placed, can offer up the best of physical and digital commerce, in context and on-demand, for just about any item one can imagine.
Completing The Retail Triangle
The question to be answered isn’t about whether physical or digital retail transactions are superior because the answer is not as simple as which is better or worse, Agrawal noted. A better explanation is that their relative specialties appeal to different consumers and at different times, depending on what people are buying. eCommerce, he said, is an independent, artificial intelligence (AI)-guided, curated and quick-shopping experience. It is the nursery in which the self-sufficient digital consumer was developed — and there’s a lot to recommend the experience, particularly in terms of efficiency and control.
But physical retail offers an almost equally powerful draw, he stated, which is immediacy. No going to an app, no waiting on delivery — just pay and the item is in hand. That’s why, from USA Technologies’ perspective, unattended retail solutions are a valid addition for so many retailers and merchants, because they provide a bridge between the two experiences.
“It delivers all the capabilities of a self-determined consumer experience, but in the immediate comfort of the workplace, or while one is traveling and needs to fill a specific need,” Agarwal pointed out. “And as different solutions and technologies have evolved over the years, it is driving more of a seamless shopping experience at kiosks.”
Moving kiosks to cashless payments, he noted, was the starting point — because it takes away the limits of what types of goods can be placed inside of them. Cash-based machines will always be limited to the couple of dollars the average consumer has on them at any moment. Digitally enabled machines that take card and mobile payments are incredibly versatile and can be matched with their contexts, such as bigger-ticket electronics in airports or luxury beauty items in high-end hotel lobbies.
In the wake of COVID-19, Agarwal noted, they’ve seen their larger retailers like CVS and Walgreens using unattended retail solutions to distribute goods to consumers while working to limit the number of staff members and consumers in stores. Those vending kiosks can dispense medical items like Tylenol, removing the face-to-face contact from a very common commerce transaction.
Meeting The Consumer
And while health crisis mitigation is admittedly an unusual context, Agrawal said, the use of unattended retail solutions and tools for businesses large and small is uniquely responsive to that context. In fact, he noted, as AI has improved, the machines have gotten better at responding to their specific surroundings, tracking what items are selling and making recommendations about what could be stocked.
As self-determined retail experiences get more relevant and prevalent, said Agrawal, they will become a more normal part of consumers’ expectations for their retail journeys. That is something they are already starting to see among younger consumers in the U.S., as well as in markets like Japan, where unattended retail technology is more established.
“And we see that the younger generation in the U.S. is increasingly pushing this in the same direction, and pushing for more innovation,” Agrawal noted.
And while the not insignificant matter of the global economic slowdown has weighed down parts of the industry at the moment, the future on the whole is bright, and might ultimately be even brighter thanks to the trends sparked by the slowdown.