When it comes to the growth of self-service technology, few industries are as fertile as the c-store. High traffic generates a need for speed, and the range of demographics that use them means a variety of services will appeal to at least some customers. In addition, low profit-margins force operators to do ever more with less.
Those factors meet head-on at NACStech, the annual technology show of the North American Convenience Store association.
Jim Phelps, chief executive officer of CompuShop Services, recounted the history of self-service at c-stores in a session called "Automated Retail Applications: Convenience Retailing for the Future," at NACStech 2007, April 30-May 2, in Nashville. He cited its evolution from the ATM and pay at-the-pump and car washes, to automated retail kiosks. As operators meet the greater demand for more self-service, he said, they can simultaneously realize benefits from lower labor costs and increased sales.
That's not to say there are not challenges along the way. Jeff Kline, president and CEO of Island Vending Magic, said operators must learn what technologies customers will use, and then be able to overcome the software barriers that prevent disparate technologies—including POS—from playing nicely together.
The industry certainly promises the traffic to make overcoming those obstacles worthwhile. NACS president and chief executive Hank Armour said that in the 12 years since the first NACStech, industry sales have quadrupled, from $150 billion in 1995 to more than half a trillion dollars in 2006, with much of the expansion juiced in through the cords and wires of its technology.
Pinnacle, a POS company, is launching a QSR kiosk developed by xPedient.
"I think a lot of us would agree that the biggest change since that first NACStech is in technology. We, as an industry, have gone from technology laggards to leaders, whether with consumer-facing technology or back-office applications," he said.
This year, the NACStech expo covered more than 19,500 net square feet and featured more than 114 exhibiting companies.
At the show
CSS (Corporate Safe Specialists), which provides safes of multiple security levels, showed a unit designed to work with kiosks that tracks and hold cash for access only by authorized people, such as store operators or even Brinks drivers. The protection is designed to help prevent store employees from blaming the kiosk for shrinkage.
FISCAL brought a pump-side kiosk for truckers needing fuel. The kiosk, wholly designed by Fiscal, recognizes drivers based on their card swipe and guides them through questions such as how many miles are on the truck at the time of fill-up. About 250 are in the field, said representative Dennis Phillips, and all are integrated with in-store POS to save the trucker a trip inside the store.
GILBARCO VEEDER-ROOT showed its Encore S food-ordering kiosk, which allows users to adjust even the level of condiments on their orders, such as more or less mustard. Later this year, the pay-at-the-pump QSR solution will allow payment at the terminal for food orders.
INCOMM KIOSK SOLUTIONS partnered with KING Products and Solutions for their financial-services kiosk, which offers bill pay and some pre-paid services such as wireless. Users can also buy song downloads from Napster by paying for credit and receiving a PIN to be used later on Napster's site. Fifty machines will be deployed at Valero racetrack this month.
OVATION, which recently beat out luminaries such as Sony to be named Microsoft's partner of the year, showed pay-at-the-pump technology that lets motorist pay with WiFi technology. Wireless phone close at hand, the user stands by the pump and prompts it to connect. The pump can then retrieve credit card information the user has stored on the phone and send a receipt via text message. The application is in beta at Home Depot fuel islands in the Nashville area.
PINNACLE showed its Palm.Kiosk food-ordering unit, branded with xPedient to give the POS company additional credibility as it makes its first run at kiosks. The machine is designed to work with its Palm POS platform.
RETALIX was another company showing self-service food ordering. Developed with IMK and NCR, the kiosk prints a barcode receipt for users to take to the POS. Doug Fick, Retalix, highlighted that a significant percentage of screens can show advertising.
VERIFONE showed a self-service food-ordering solution with software that can be tuned to help deployers track virtually every aspect of the production process, including the popularity of individual sandwich ingredients such as ketchup and onions. In its early stage, the device requires customers to print the sandwich instructions and give them to kitchen workers. Four companies have installed a total of 11 units so far at five sites.