An interesting phenomenon occurred in self-service this year: While no single deployment dominated the industry's attention, notable trends seemed to fall in line with the greater scheme of things. As more people bought tablets, joined social media and shopped on smartphones, self-service technology providers found ways to assist, capitalize and profit from the will of the masses.
Tablets take over
As is the case with most disruptive innovations in technology, one item in a new segment tends to become the standard-bearer that others attempt to follow. For tablets, the obvious leader of the pack is Apple's iPad.
The device has infiltrated homes worldwide, and kiosk manufacturers have taken notice. The past year has been a boon for tablet kiosks, with companies building enclosures, stands and software to transform the iPad and other tablets into a self-service customer engagement technology.
"The beginning of year there were maybe a dozen iPad kiosk companies and now there is somewhere around 50," said Mike James, a 30-year kiosk professional and developer of the Kiosk Pro App for iPad and iPad2. "This year it's clear that iPad and tablet-based kiosks are sweeping the industry."
According to James, there is no going back to the old form PC-based kiosks, as he consistently deals with clients looking for the lower overhead and greater ROI that comes from a tablet-based kiosk.
And there are no signs of the popularity slowing down. With what started as small orders for 10 to 20 tablet kiosks, James said, "Now we get orders for 250 to 500 at a time. They've gone into big business."
Michael Ionescu, president of Ionescu Technologies, agrees that with no standout, overarching trend of 2012, tablets take the cake this year, even in the interactive digital signage industry.
"I think the most important trend to happen in our industry is the growth of tablet computing and the fact that interactive smartphones have reached over 50 percent of cell users," he said. "What this means is that more and more people are getting use to digital and interacting with digital screens."
Mobile moves in
While tablets were staking a claim in the kiosk industry, smartphones were taking self-service to the next level. Mobile apps for self-checkout, payments, mapping and wayfinding have turned the common pocket devices into endless industry portals.
"Conventional website traffic is now non-desktop," said Craig Keefner, manager of the Kiosk Industry Group and member of the Digital Screenmedia Association Kiosk Council. "Retail has finally adopted mobile and made it a platform, especially for the future."
This past September, Walmart made news when it began testing the Scan & Go app for self-checkout. Scan & Go enables shoppers to do just that — scan their items while they shop and bag them as they go. Once finished, shoppers take their cart full of merchandise to a self-checkout kiosk and complete the purchase through traditional payment methods, although mobile payments are expected to trump that process. The app was produced by the company's social and mobile developers, @Walmart Labs, and boasts added benefits like allowing customers to create virtual shopping lists and checking that items on their list are in stock.
While Walmart has remained mum on whether and when they plan to launch the program nationwide, the seed has been sown and similar apps are already popping up.
And wayfinding kiosks at shopping malls beware. A growing number of retail facilities are opting for on-site or in-store map apps that utilize Wi-Fi GPS to help shoppers get around. Analysts following the indoor mapping industry speculate that it is on its way to sharing the same common popularity already found in outdoor mobile GPS.
"I think that within two to three years we will see indoor mapping and location services as big as outdoor is now," said Bruce Krulwich, a mobile strategist with Grizzly Analytics.
Photo kiosks fall in love with social media
It's no secret that society is a bit social media "obsessed," and that the obsession has seeped into big business. In self-service terms, photo kiosks have jumped onto the proverbial bandwagon with new products popping up with tightly integrated photo sharing on social media.
Although Kodak garnered substantial press this year with its bankruptcy filing and uncertainty surrounding the fate of its enormous photo kiosk fleet, the dust has seemed to settle and the iconic company has managed to maintain its footprint in the U.S. Kodak was an early adopter of social media photo printing, going back to May of 2011, and several other companies have developed similar concepts.
"Several startups seem to be trying to capitalize on social media to make their mark," said Gary Pageau, formerly of the Photo Marketing Association and current principal of Infocircle. "New entries are trying to add social marketing to event marketing. This trend is still too early to judge its success, but clearly the strength of photography is its social aspects."
Take iSnap Social for example. Consumers take photos of themselves and instantly post them to their personal social media sites at the photo booth-style kiosks, located in Las Vegas hotel casinos including Circus Circus, Excalibur and Luxor. More recently, FanShots and TapSnap have entered the ring, both offering high-quality photos beamed instantly to the user's social media accounts.
And even though smartphones are morphing into handheld photo booths, with Kodak still in the business, Pageau thinks that the "jitters have settled." He added, "Kodak seems committed to the ongoing photo kiosk business, even getting a recommitment from its key customer, CVS."
These three topics are not alone. There's more to discuss in part two of our look at the year's biggest trends, coming soon.
(Editor's Note: This is part one of a two-part series on the biggest kiosk and self-service industry trends of 2012. Check back for part two, as well as our 2013 forecast, with predictions from industry experts.)
Photo provided by Sean MacEntee.
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