Unattended retail to take center stage in the collision of digital and physical

Technology today continues to grow at a magnificent rate. So significant, in fact, that experiences on your favorite website or app probably consume a considerable portion of your down time. Other online activities – such as watching TV, ordering food and managing money – are largely digitized activities today, whose user experiences are only getting better.

But while online experiences flourish, the offline world remains a struggle. Finding a parking spot, waiting on a restaurant check and navigating through festival crowds are the same headaches they’ve always been. Mobile technology, on one hand, is eroding much of this pain, through the advent of order ahead, check deposit capture and digital ticketing. Additionally, augmented reality (AR) and geolocation are playing pivotal roles in delivering connected experiences in previously offline environments – as seen with Snapchat geofilters and Pokemon Go.

But what about the part of the consumer’s life that simply can’t be digitized? Hardware at play in these situations must be sufficiently intelligent to enable experiences as rich as those online. Enter Amazon Go, whose retail outlets have been an early success with IoT, beacon and image recognition technologies integrated into stores. The concept presents a new level of convenience for shoppers in need of quick goods and sets the foundation for a revolutionized form of retail.

On a smaller and more practical scale, unattended retail – a space traditionally hallmarked by vending machines and ATMs – could be the next to blossom.

Networks such as Redbox rentals, FedEx package pods, Amazon lockers, photo booths and even parking kiosks represent distribution channels that serve consumers in the physical world each day. In transportation settings, self-service kiosks now expedite traditional processes of check-in, site navigation and ticketing. In a slightly different manner, pop-up shops have become a popular play for retailers looking to capitalize on locale with heavy foot traffic without committing big dollars to leases.

With newfound technological infrastructure in place, there’s plenty of opportunity yet to be tapped – of all which dovetails nicely with advancements in mobile technology.

Incumbent players like USA Technologies and Cardtronics have gradually advanced the digital capabilities of their vending and ATM hardware to accommodate growing use of smartphones for placing orders and paying. An even more progressive example is Eatsa, a San Francisco-based restaurant chain that interfaces with customers solely through kiosks – with all food prepared behind the scenes and presented to the customer through cubbies. Other examples include Vengo Labs’ gym vending machines, which distribute exercise-related products in locker rooms, and Cargo, which offers last minute-type goods in portable vending machines stationed within ride sharing vehicles.

The name of the game for these vending providers is building a physical footprint in settings where their target customers need their products instantly. Smartphones are the new vehicles that can enable frictionless interaction with existing unattended retail networks. With the ubiquity of mobile devices, consumers have proven willing to splurge on convenience goods and services that alleviate a temporary friction or pain in the offline world (paying for goods with a specific form of tender or satisfying hunger on the spot). Now is the time for unattended retail to capitalize on that impulse.

Though friction still exists in the offline world, unattended retail can come to the rescue, presenting the right product at the right time, with little hassle to the consumer. With today’s technology quickly blurring the lines between digital and physical worlds, unattended retail providers can get creative with the types of products and distribution techniques that are employed and begin to serve the consumer in ways previously unimaginable.

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