Kiosk Newsbit

07/28/99- Updated 09:59 AM ET
Retailers adding Web kiosks
By Lorrie Grant, USA TODAY

Traditional retailers are making their Web sites accessible in stores to sell goods not carried in their typical store inventories.

"(They) have taken the idea of the kiosk and Internet and put them together," says Tom Rauh, management consulting partner at Deloitte Consulting.

Called "in-store Web-assisted selling," the goal is twofold:

Keep customers from leaving empty-handed.

Provide a new level of selection, especially for customers who may not otherwise have access to the Internet. Bricks-and-mortar stores can display only a limited amount of merchandise, often forcing customers to go elsewhere when their desired size, style, color or model is not available.

The average percentage of people visiting a store who actually make a purchase is 25%, a recent Deloitte survey of specialty retailers shows.

Consumers, accustomed to the instant gratification fostered by electronic commerce, are less willing to shuttle from store to store for an item. So they are increasingly abandoning stores in favor of the selection on the Internet.

But retailers are betting that they can compete effectively with the Internet by offering consumers the ability to surf their Web sites while in the store. They say consumers will tolerate a couple of days' delay for a confirmed order.

"We're trying to further energize retailers to take advantage of the unique store channel that they have as they enter the e-commerce world," says Cathy Hotka, head of information technology at the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Among those trying it:

Gap. The casual apparel giant set up "Web lounges" at its New York, Chicago and San Francisco flagships as well as at stores in Los Angeles and Aspen, Colo. Some have as many as four computer terminals. "We did it because we wanted to create a snapshot of the Gap store of the future," spokeswoman Rebecca Weill says. "It's another way to experience the brand and inject excitement."

Gap's online store carries about three-quarters of the merchandise stocked in flagship stores, which are the largest and have the most comprehensive product lines.

Kmart. The discount chain's Kmart Solutions system allows shoppers to buy items and brands that the company does not ordinarily stock in its stores and receive them directly from the manufacturer. The computers are posted at service desks and electronics and sporting goods counters in 625 stores. The 2,000 or so products include appliances, Callaway golf clubs, Omaha Steaks and Indian River fruit baskets as well as more-expensive models of stocked lines.

"We carry cameras in our stores, for example, but it may not be an $800 digital camera, which would be available through Kmart Solutions," Kmart spokeswoman Mary Lorencz says.

Services also can be purchased, including sending flowers and wiring money.

Pam Foster perused a Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Kmart for Coleman sleeping bags, but the in-store selection was small. A sales agent urged her to try the Web page, where she found two models she liked.

"I probably would have gone somewhere else," says Foster, 50 , who does not otherwise use the Internet.

In-store Web-assisted selling is an electronic update of the time-honored custom of having sales agents call other stores in a chain to find a garment or product. Though it was an effort to provide customer service and keep sales from getting away, it was inefficient.

Now the Internet is prodding retailers to invest in back-end processes and systems to handle orders and ship the product, much like a catalog, so that they can sell in multichannels, both in store and through the Web.

Says Rauh: "The customer shopping (a retailer) in multiple channels starts to think of you in a different way. You are more top-of-mind, loyalty is higher and it gives the retailer the ability to build a relationship."

Experts say in-store Web-assisted selling is a particularly strong business model for companies that carry replacement items, such as dinnerware and tabletop accessories. A Web lounge would let the customer search for even small pieces, such as a sugar bowl lid, as well as additions to an out-of-circulation collection.

Or tourists, hesitating to make a purchase because they don't want to haul the merchandise back home, can bypass checkout counters by ordering the merchandise on line in the store and having their purchases shipped home.

"Stores know how many pieces they have. The issue is leveraging the information so it enhances and speeds customer service," says Hotka of trade organization NRF, which also represents online retailers.

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