From vending machines to Amazon Go: How self-serve is transforming retail


Amazon Go may be getting a lot of hype, but the idea it’s founded on is a very old one.  For decades, the power of unattended retail has been quietly building. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and consumers growing preferences for self-serve options, unattended retail is getting its place in the sun.


First, a brief history lesson. 

Self-serve retail, as an industry, has been around for many generations. It was founded by the concept of vending machines, which would sit in corners of businesses in the hopes that people walking by would buy something with the cash in their pocket.

However, because self-serve retail began equipping these vending machines with cashless payments technologies (NFC, credit card and debit card) more than a decade ago, it also allowed the industry to begin collecting data on consumer preferences and shopping habits well before the term “Big Data” was coined.

As consumers became more accustomed to digital, personalized online experiences and paying with their phones, the once antiquated self-serve business model was ready with a fully developed foundation to serve this new generation of retail, and is now driving its evolution by extending self-serve retail experiences well-beyond its traditional vending roots and into online and physical retail channels.

Connected machines which now accept cashless payments are offering personalization in a way that is harnessing both convenience – putting product where people need or want it – as well as new technology like AI and machine learning. The ability to connect with consumers who are thinking: “I want you to know me, and what I want, but I don’t want have to talk to anyone to get it” is now reality.

To see the ways self-serve retail is driving innovation in the industry,  you don’t have to look far.


Amazon Go (aka micro-markets)

While considered a “big innovation” in modern retail, mini stores or markets which enable customers to check themselves out using self-serve payment kiosk have been growing long before Amazon Go. Think break rooms and work campuses where a consumer could come in at their leisure, select an item and pay on their way out using whatever they have in their pocket. These shops have been taking the place of attended convenient stores for years where labor is expensive, or when a machine might give the appearance that items are less fresh. Referred to as “micro-markets” in the halls of the self-serve retail industry, in 2017, the industry boasted nearly $1 billion in revenues and 17,800 of these self-serve locations. Now, Bloomberg recently reported that Amazon is mulling plans to open as many as 3,000 Amazon Go locations alone by 2021.


Interactive Payment Touch Screens

Touch screen technology at point of sale has opened up self-serve retail to endless options for engagement with a shopper, including increased personalization based on past purchases and greater loyalty. Imagine visiting a vending machine in your office. Rather than just pushing in your credit card and selecting your item, this machine offers you product information, promotional codes for discounted or free purchases from advertisers, and even lets you get a refund in real-time using a code sent via SMS to your phone.  This is really happening, and touchscreens are currently equipped on thousands of machines nationwide.

Vending Times coverage of one study showed that installing a machine with touchscreen technology with targeted digital advertising highlighting Apple Pay resulted in 26 percent increase in overall transactions, 22 percent increase in total revenue and 12 percent increase in total average ticket.


Self-Serve Kiosks

We’re seeing these all over the place nowadays, whether it’s books being sold on college campuses, headphones being sold in kiosks at airports, or even key cutting kiosks in a local drug store. Self-serve kiosks offer retailers access to high-traffic areas with no real estate or no labor costs.  It can also help redirect labor away from menial tasks in store (like cutting keys) to high-value tasks such as helping customers.

According to Kiosk Marketplace, global interactive kiosks — not counting vending machines, ATMs and mounted tablets — will reach $9.22 billion in 2019, marking a 17.6 percent 1-year gain and surpassing the prior year’s growth rate.

In the next three to five years, look for more big box retailers and brands that will show up as pop-up kiosks in locations where consumers live work and play, such as schools, workplaces, airports or railway stations. But it’s not just larger retailers and brands that will benefit. Small entrepreneurial companies and even online brands can use pop up kiosks to present their items to the right consumers at the right time. Kiosks will likely soon become pretty standard play for many retailers.

The convergence of traditional and self-serve retail is truly driving offering new models to retail, bringing together new companies and old to learn from each other for the betterment of consumers. Self-serve retail will continue to lead the charge, drive innovation by enabling operators to sell the items consumers want, where they want it, accepting any payment method that they prefer.  As more companies invest in technology aimed at enabling consumers to “help themselves” through a transaction, the self-serve industry is at the forefront of change.  Retailers, regardless of whether they are online, brick-and-mortar, big or small, should look to invest in self-serve technology, learn from, and build upon, its evolution as the industry continues to grow.

Vice President of Marketing, USA Technologies, Maeve Duska

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Have we as a workforce created or own downfall by allowing companies to continue to replace humans with machines. When will we get to the stage that if there are no humans employed where will the earnings to by goods come from.


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