Upping the flow of market intelligence

Everyone can remember the birth of the kiosk. People lined up for ages in shopping malls and exhibition halls around the country just to catch a glimpse of the newest high-tech wonder. But once you reached the front of the line...

Everyone can remember the birth of the kiosk. People lined up for ages in shopping malls and exhibition halls around the country just to catch a glimpse of the newest high-tech wonder. But once you reached the front of the line – if the machine was working at all – it was almost always a disappointment. It was too complicated, or too slow, or it didn’t do much of anything useful.

A new generation of faster, cheaper computer chips, along with a host of new plastics and other building materials, is changing that. Today’s kiosk does more, costs less, looks better and is far more dependable than the kiosk of old.

The newest kiosks are software-driven and Web-enabled. They can be enhanced with a wide menu of cutting-edge add-ons, including retina scanners, finger scanners, speakers, perfume atomizers and credit card readers. They can also handle cash transactions.

Kathy Atkinson-Thomas is creative director for Exhibits International, a Toronto-based exhibits and display company that specializes in prototypical and customized interactive kiosks. She says the Internet – with its ability to find information quickly and efficiently – has raised consumer expectations of kiosks, but that the best ones are still fun and simple to use. If they get too sophisticated, she warns, there’s the possibility they’ll break down, frustrating the consumer and tainting their experience.

It’s more important for marketers to get the basics right, she contends. Namely, ensuring the kiosk is integrated into its environment – whether that’s a retail store or a trade show exhibit – and making sure that environment appeals to all the senses.

‘We now use translucent materials, fabric, lighting, and images that change with plasma screens, rather than static graphics, so they can be continually updated,’ she says. ‘It’s the atmosphere, the environment, we’re trying to create, so the visitor feels comfortable.’

You can even incorporate scents into displays these days – as Atkinson-Thomas did by introducing the aroma of coffee to a recent Internet café booth – but she warns that it’s a feature best used sparingly.

‘You have to be careful with smells because of allergies,’ she says. ‘Also, depending on what the smell is, with some people, it can trigger a bad image.’

Today’s kiosks are also more useful, benefiting both consumer and client. Atkinson-Thomas says the same software that allows code warriors to develop useful and easy consumer interfaces also gives marketers the ability to capture information about potential customers – in real time.

At auto shows, for example, while consumers are busy gathering information about various car models and features, marketers are collecting the data they need to follow up leads. That information – such as a person’s name and address, when they last bought a car and which models they favour – can be instantly retrieved using wireless devices such as a Palm handheld, Blackberry unit or laptop computer.

Bob Gorrie, CEO of Toronto-based Gorrie Marketing Services, says that transactional kiosks – such as ticket dispensers found at movie theatres and banking machines – will become even more common as they continue to evolve. He even expects we’ll soon be seeing cell phone- or PDA-compatible kiosks that will enable consumers to buy items using hand-held devices.

The big drawback to such transactional kiosks, says Gorrie, is their inability to serve large groups. ‘We’ve all seen lineups behind ATMs,’ he says. ‘The question one needs to ask is: ‘Are they financially viable when multiple kiosks are required, and will these be cheaper and more effective than hiring people [to do the job]?”

After all, such kiosks don’t come cheap. Interactive computer kiosks can run from $4,000 to more than $10,000, depending on the bells and whistles. For custom-designed interactive kiosks, Atkinson-Thomas says even the most basic model costs roughly $5,000.

Which may help to explain why, given today’s tight marketing budgets, there’s still room for passive displays. While they may not be as glamorous as interactive kiosks, traditional floor or shelf displays can be embellished with features – such as flashing LCD diodes, or motion sensors that trigger a recorded message – that help draw a customer’s attention, says Philip Gilbert, marketing manager of Creative Displayworks of Concord, Ont.

Displays can also engage the customer without the use of high-tech gadgets, says Gilbert. He points to displays in paint and wallpaper stores that invite consumers to choose from various paint colours and decorating styles to achieve the effect they’re looking for.

Ironically, Gilbert says the one high-tech development that has had the most impact on the display industry in the past few years is one consumers can’t really see: the introduction of digital printing.

Full-colour projects were much more expensive in the past, says Gilbert, because of the need for four-colour process film. This meant that most displays were pretty-much generic because thousands had to be produced to make them cost effective. With digital printing, full-colour displays can now be tailored for specific retailers easily and cheaply.

Also in this report:

- HMV engages customers with in-store displays: Listening posts, interactive kiosks and signage reinforce brand and drive sales p.B12

- Teletoon draws kids with Animation Station: Travelling display let youngsters create their own cartoons p.B14