By Simon Rines

UK consumers are still wary of interactive technology. However, new systems which cater better for customer needs may be about to change this.

The use of interactive technology in the retail environment is still in the experimental phase. Despite touch-screen systems being available for about a decade now, the medium has not really taken off.

Only recently, a major installation by the British Airports Authority at Heathrow comprising 24 touch-screen interactive shopping kiosks was withdrawn. More than 60,000 people were browsing through the information each month but few actually ordered anything on the system.

The reasons for the failure of the BAA initiative are not completely clear. There have been criticisms that the system was not promoted properly, lacked a wide product range and was placed away from the retailers at Heathrow.

But there is also a belief that, in the UK at least, customers are still not ready to go about seeking sales information from a machine.

So, does interactive technology have a place in the retail environment?

“Customers still tend to be wary of the technology,” says Russell Edwardson, account manager at point-of-purchase specialist Evans Petty Associates.

“It is, perhaps, down to British reserve. In the US, interactive systems are more widely used and include developments such as talking shelves. In Britain, you’d get people thinking: ‘Oh God, everyone’s looking because the shelf is talking to me’. For this reason we believe the way forward is to use the technology as an aid to the shop assistant.”

Indeed, an advanced version of this approach is already in operation. Leeds-based On Demand Information has installed systems for two very different clients that use interactive technology to assist the sales effort. The principle behind ODI’s strategy is to use high-quality multimedia systems in the retail environment which are linked to a central server by a high-capacity ISDN line.

For kitchen retailer Design Academy, this has revolutionised the way sales are handled. The customer is invited to view a screen with the shop assistant. A wire-frame diagram of a standard kitchen is shown and the customer is asked to choose features. The design of kitchen units, work surfaces, tiles and electrical appliances can then be dropped in place using menus and the mouse. If, for example, the customer wants to try a different tile© design, the assistant goes back to the tile menu, which shows close-ups of the designs. Once another choice has been made, it is instantly set onto the main image and the design, with the new tiles, is shown. When the customer has agreed a design in principle, the assistant can then check availability, price and delivery dates with the central server.

An appointment is then made to measure the customer’s kitchen, the details of which are fed into the computer. A full colour print of the finished design is then sent to the customer, although changes can still be made and new printouts delivered before confirmation.

“There is seldom such a thing as a quick sale in the quality kitchen market,” says Peter Wood, managing director of Design Academy. “Customers are being asked to commit several thousand pounds on the strength of a mental image. This system involves customers at every stage and gives them real peace of mind that they have made the right decision.”

Though advanced, this type of multimedia program is not in itself unique. It is the fact that ODI has linked the front-end system to a central server that’s new, and presents major advantages.

“By using a host server the user has the ability to have completely refreshed information,” says Peter Jones, managing director of ODI’s Applications Division.

“Information such as catalogues, price and availability can be updated hourly if necessary. The client simply sends us the new information from head office down an ISDN line and we load it onto the server and send it to all the terminals. Misplaced or out-of-date information need never be a problem again.”

The company has also installed seven systems into stores of the northern audio-visual retailer, Hamlet’s. The Direct Sales systems allow customers to select “off the screen” as catalogue shoppers do off the page and make savings of up to 15 per cent against the manufacturer’s recommended retail price.

Using the touch-screen systems, it is possible to view more than 300 products displayed in full colour with up-to-date prices and specifications. It is also possible for viewers to take a printout of any product they are interested in.

The actual purchase is made in the normal way, using sales staff, despite the fact that it would be possible for the technology to handle the actual sale.

“I think there is a development issue with the customer’s mindset,” says Jones. “We are probably not yet ready for on-screen purchases but that will come as people get used to the systems.”

That is not to say that the equipment is merely a gimmick – Mike Hamlet, managing director of Hamlet’s, believes the system has already demonstrated genuine benefits. “This is a great added-value selling proposition that will give incremental business while making no demands on shop floor or backroom space,” he says.

“The Direct Sales system – which we’ve dubbed the ‘silent salesman’ – takes up 5 sq ft of the showroom floor while the products available to view on the system would need around 1,500 sq ft of display. This means we can deliver excellent savings to our customers in a market that is increasingly competitive.”

The unique benefit of ODI’s solution is the on-line service that can download not just updated information but high-quality video and graphics. Is there, however, still© room for standalone information systems that do not require this regular update?

BIT Group has recently installed a single unit system for The Midlands Co-operative Society’s Peak Park store in Derby.

The interactive unit, which runs off a standard 486 PC, is being used as an information system in the store’s off-sales department to help customers choose wine.

“The Co-op wanted to provide a differentiator to help customers choose wine according to budget, wine type and the meal it is to accompany,” says Paul Dobson, sales manager of the Interactive Development Division at BIT Group.

“The unit has a database with more than 250 wines stored on hard disk. The customer can use one of several search criteria to select a suitable wine. The system will then display the label as well as details, and a price bracket for each of the recommended choices.”

In the 14 months the wine selector has been operational, more than 27,000 people have used it. At present, the system is running at its most basic level but there are opportunities to expand it.

“It would be possible to link it to inventories to ensure that out-of-stock wines are not being displayed,” says Dobson.

“It could also be used for market research – to monitor the information people are accessing, and finding out whether it translates into sales. The Co-op is also looking at a built-in credit card reader which would be attached to the EPOS system. The customer would then choose the bottle of wine, pay for it and walk to the checkout where the slip would be ready to sign.”

The use of interactivity at the point of sale has also been incorporated into more traditional forms of sales promotions.

Apple recently used the method to help boost sales of its Performa 5200 computer. The mechanic of the promotion was to insert an audio CD into copies of What PC magazine. The CD played a radio drama which used a character, Ego, to introduce the theme “Apple Dreams” and explain a little about the company and its products. The CD urged the listener to visit a dealership using the incentive of a Volkswagen Polo as a draw prize. An 0800 number was provided to give details of the nearest dealership.

Once at the store, the dealer would place the CD into an Apple computer which would then bring the character Ego to life in a short visual module in which the potential customer was invited to try the system.

“Apple has historically had the problem that however much it spends on advertising and direct marketing, the actual contact the customer has when buying a computer is with an independent dealer who may be keen to push a PC,” says Laurence Croneen, marketing communications director of Spectrum Communications which developed the system in conjunction with multimedia specialist Line TV.

“The company wanted to control the process from the time of initial communication to the time of purchase, and this promotion ensured that the customer would have a full demonstration of the Performa at the dealership.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with the use of interactive systems so far is that they have not focused on identifying the needs of the customer. The Apple case history made it easy for the user to deal with the technology, both in the original communication and at the dealership. Similarly, ODI has set out to identify what the customer wants, and then design systems to meet that requirement. But in general, the industry has been let down by ill-conceived systems that seem to be technical solutions looking for problems. Also, in many cases, the hardware has proved unreliable.

The benefits of interactive systems are clear and the concept is bound to spread. However, the mistake is to rush into technology for technology’s sake. Interactive systems will only work where they are relevant, and designed and built to suit the customer’s real needs.

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