Taking the Net Offline – Prelude to a Kiosk?

E-commerce kiosks: Before too long, every retailer will have one in the corner of the store. But willany of the customers know what to do with them?

Every day, the question becomes more and more pertinent. Kmart and Barnes & Noble have already started down the kiosk path. And recently, after a short test run, office supplies merchant Staples flicked the switches on Web machines in 900-plus stores across the United States.

One thing is certain about all the kiosk building. Without a lot more work, this project is going to bea major disappointment. Plunking a machine down and plugging it into the Net is noteven half the battle. Many retail shoppers won’t feel any more comfortable buying online from inside a store than they would from their own home.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Make no mistake, however — kiosks are worth fighting for. Their potential is enormous.

Staples says that its average store has 7,500products on the shelves. The Web store has 45,000 items for sale.Multiplying the number of items on the store shelves by six times or so is agood place to start.

But that’s just the tip of the synergy iceberg when trying to use brick-and-mortar stores to drive sales online. The leap from having the kiosk abandoned in a lonely corner to having a bunch of happy shoppers lined up in front of it is, well, a really big leap.

Kiosk the Sky

Thefact is, people who don’t use the Web to shop now aren’t going to use e-commerce kiosksjust because they’re in the store. The kiosks will need to be much easier to use andmuch less intimidating than they are.

Picture the average customers in an office supply store or a discount market. More likely than not, many of these are people who lack confidence in using the Internet and in Web shopping. Imagine them in front of a retail display of 500 different kinds of envelopes, obviously flustered, looking for a specific size and shape, only to come up empty.

Will they truck on over to the Web kiosk to place the order? Doubtful. At least not the first time. And not on their own. The shoppers are going tohave to be led there by a store employee and given a hand in using the machine.

A Simple Kiosk

Now, one could well argue that the easiest way to learn how to use computers and the Web is to do it yourself. All the most accomplished computer geeks Iknow are self-taught.

However, I doubt few of them became self-taught amid bustling shoppers and “Price check on erasers!” being belted out over a store public address system.

If stores like Staples can get their customer service act together and send employees outto find those confused-looking customers and help them use the kiosks tomake their purchases, they’re going to have all the synergy they want. Unfortunately, my experience with customer service at retail chains of any size leaves meless than confident that that will happen.

Trying to teach people to use a computer for the first time, when all they want to do is buy a box of envelopes, could easily be a frustrating process. The more likely scenario is that the customer asks for help finding something, the employee points to the machine and walks away.

In-Store Schooling

In short, although e-commerce kiosks aren’t there so real-world shoppers can learn to surf, the shoppers most likely to benefit from kiosks will, for better or worse, need those lessons. What’s required, then, is to make kiosks even simpler than they are now.

The Staples machines, for example, are just regular personal computers with Webconnections. Analysts who study these things say the machine should be bigger — as in, for example, bigger buttons to click for common procedures like “print” and “buy.”

The kiosks will also need to be put in trafficked areas — as close as possible to where all thecustomer service people are milling about. Hiding Web kiosks inthe back of the store is asking for trouble.

But above all, tell the workers to smile when they show shoppershow to use a mouse. As hard as it is to imagine, it might be their first time.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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