business news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times this morning features a front-page piece on the growing popularity of touch-screen kiosks, noting that from airports to supermarkets, ski resorts to banks, "a new generation of self-service machines is slipping into the daily lives of many Americans. Rejected for decades as too complicated, the machines are being embraced by a public whose faith in technology has grown as its satisfaction with more traditional forms of customer service has diminished. Faced with the alternative — live people — it seems that many consumers now prefer the machines."

The NYT reports that close to 13,000 self- checkout systems will have been installed in American retail stores by the end of this year, more than double the number in 2001.

However, while the kiosks are celebrated for their convenience, some critics are concerned about the impact they could have on people's ability to socialize.

"The question we should be talking about is not how much faster do you get your chicken if you go through a kiosk," Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies human interactions with digital devices, told the NYT. "The question is, `What is it doing to our social world when we deploy this technology to all these parts of the life cycle?' "
KC's View:
The social fabric of society isn't uppermost on companies' minds, though. The fact is that kiosks cost less that people, aren't unionized, and don't demand raises or health care.

And we certainly understand the impulse.

But we share the concerns of people who say that a kind of de-socialization is taking place. By actively participating in this trend and encouraging it, retailers run the risk of creating shopping environments that are so sterile and mechanized that they fade into mediocrity.

Ironically, there was a wonderful presentation at GEMCON last week on the subject of kiosks - but the focus was on how a company like Lunds/Byerly's can use them to extend the brand and build on a tradition of customer service, not diminish human contact. It was a prescient topic for GEMCON to offer…we just hope people are paying attention.