COCA-COLA'S NEW IN-STORE SALESMAN IS A ROBOT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Meet RICK, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated's newest in-store pitchman.RICK, or Retailtainment Interactive Coca-Cola Kiosk, is a robot that has been used in displays at Wal-Mart supercenters. CCBCC, the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the United States, is using him to strengthen its in-store brand image and attract consumer attention at the point of sale, said Jim Bailey,

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Meet RICK, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated's newest in-store pitchman.

RICK, or Retailtainment Interactive Coca-Cola Kiosk, is a robot that has been used in displays at Wal-Mart supercenters. CCBCC, the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the United States, is using him to strengthen its in-store brand image and attract consumer attention at the point of sale, said Jim Bailey, CCBCC's advertising director.

"When consumer are in a retail location, they have a buying mentality and money in their pocket. There's no greater opportunity to deliver a message," said Bailey.

Bailey began a quest over a year ago to engage customers in the store. Then he saw a robot from AVG In-Store Interactive, Chatsworth, Calif., a division of AVG, makers of animatronics for theme parks and other events, at a trade show last year. Bailey worked with the company and created RICK.

"Companies need to go to business on a broad-based scale with all customers. From our point of view, retailtainment is a terrific idea for any retail location," said Bailey.

Jim Stewart, AVG In-Store Interactive's chief operating officer, agreed that more retail and brand marketers are pursuing retailtainment, or retail theater. Stewart noticed a particularly sharp increase about a year ago. That's why it created its in-store division. "We felt that the products that we had traditionally created for the theme park business could be effectively applied within the retail marketplace," Stewart said.

The custom-built RICK units are among the first all-electric animatronic figures, according to Stewart. AVG also markets pneumatic figures that are operated by compressed air for theme parks like Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure for the past two decades. But pneumatic figures are heavy and difficult to move, he said.

RICK, on the other hand, is electronic and can be easily loaded into a truck and moved from store to store. The ability to go into any retail outlet is one of the key strengths of the RICK units, Bailey explained. The six robots CCBCC utilizes stand 5 feet, 6 inches tall, including pedestals.

Each RICK unit can be programmed to say a scripted speech. Or, field representatives can remotely control the robot from a distance to say certain words. Head and mouth movements can be synchronized to the words RICK speaks, making it appear as though the robot is independently interacting with consumers.

RICK is the second part of a "retailtainment" strategy that CCBCC is pursuing. The first phase was a program called Family Festival, which featured inflatable sports games and video game trailers set up in the parking lots of retailers. The goal was to engage kids and adults as they walk into the store.

"We've got to change the retail location to become less like wallpaper," Bailey stressed.

Along with attracting attention to Coke displays, RICK is also a valuable communication tool.

Trying to explain to a consumer what the benefits of getting involved with a promotion are can be difficult in a 30-second television ad, he explained. RICK, meanwhile, can talk at length about the promotion, and, through remote control, can even answer consumer questions, according to Bailey.

While CCBCC plans to use RICK at other retailers, demand has been so high at Wal-Mart that it hasn't been able to yet.

RICK is primarily used for Coca-Cola Classic displays, but has also been featured in in-store campaigns for other Coca-Cola Co. brands. So far, RICK's pitches have included NASCAR, a summer promotion and new Mello Yello product.

Bailey declined to comment on specific sales figures but said the program has been overwhelmingly successful with CCBCC's customers, consumers and sales force. Consumers and store personnel have started to grow quite fond of the character and often ask to have their picture taken with him, according to Bailey.

"He's a fun guy," said Bailey. "And 'fun' is what we're lacking in the retail environment."