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For all of their advantages, when self-service ordering kiosks first began emerging in supermarket delis a few years ago, these machines seemed primarily geared toward large chains looking for a way to supplement their service departments without hiring more people. Small chains that prided themselves on service, on the other hand, seemed to have little need for them. But, as shoppers have becomeNextep DEli Express

For all of their advantages, when self-service ordering kiosks first began emerging in supermarket delis a few years ago, these machines seemed primarily geared toward large chains looking for a way to supplement their service departments without hiring more people. Small chains that prided themselves on service, on the other hand, seemed to have little need for them.

But, as shoppers have become more familiar with touchscreen interfaces, and have become more accustomed to using kiosks in places like airport check-in lines, the devices have become more associated with convenience, and in the past year, many independents have discovered that the technology can help slash wait times in busy deli and prepared-food departments, without compromising that image of personal service.

“All chains are going to have to weigh the options for themselves, and there are trade-offs,” said Alan Hiebert, education and information specialist for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. “If you don't have the budget to hire more people, a kiosk system may be a good idea. But you have to understand that there's no way any kind of a machine like that is going to completely replace human interaction.”

There are, of course, customers who would prefer to use a kiosk rather than interact with store associates. In fact, one survey by Microsoft's Retailspeak magazine indicated that 76% of consumers would prefer using a kiosk to receiving assistance from a store associate, according to IDDBA's 2008 “What's in Store” report. But, other studies have indicated that shoppers always want the option of talking to a person, and for chains where service is a calling card, one would assume that shoppers don't go there to avoid the staff.

“We did a study about two years ago, and consumers are pretty comfortable with [kiosks], as long as they have the option of speaking to someone,” said Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy.

Paul drew a comparison to the airline industry, where passengers now view kiosks as a faster, easier way to get their boarding passes, rather than waiting in line for an agent. He also noted that many kiosks can be programmed to remember customers. Many restaurants that use the technology have programmed kiosks to remember customers' last order, for example, and ask those customers if they would like to place that order again or modify it.

“Consumers are getting much more familiar and comfortable with them. They offer the opportunity to reduce errors and communication problems. And, what it also says to consumers is, ‘Hey, these folks are pretty cutting edge. They understand technology; they know how to use it.’ Now, this is assuming that in any of these situations, it's optional whether you use the kiosk [or talk to a person].”

If there is a problem, or if a customer needs special assistance, customers want to know that there are people readily available to help them. In deli or prepared-food departments, he noted, shoppers might have special instructions that just won't translate well onto a kiosk.

“Suppose you want dressing or gravy,” he said. “Well, how much do you want? You want to be there when you put the gravy on. Instructions like that are very difficult to program into a kiosk.”

Concerned that self-service kiosks might be viewed as impersonal, or worse, viewed as a service cutback by their customers, management officials at Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton, Ohio, were hesitant about the technology a few years ago. But, after a pilot test at their busiest location last year using a kiosk unit developed by Lombard, Ill.-based Adusa, the grocer quickly decided to deploy the kiosks at all three of its stores.

“When the subject was brought up to the management team five years ago, everyone was afraid it would be perceived as us trying to save labor or cut costs,” said Patrick Arnold, IT director for DLM. “But certainly the airline industry and Home Depot and others have helped push the self-service model. Now, there's a generation of people, certainly the younger generation, that really wants to get in and out as quickly as possible, and views self-service as another form of service.”

Some people, Arnold added, use the kiosks even if there isn't a line at the deli. They just want to place their order, do their shopping, and get in and out of the store quickly. For those shoppers, it's an added convenience.

Yet, Arnold noted that other factors motivated the company to experiment with the technology.

“The biggest catalyst was that our Washington Square store — our highest-volume store — the deli there was getting so backed up from 4 to 6 on Monday through Friday, and probably 10 to 6 on Saturday and Sunday,” he said. “We'd have 10 people deep in line. We pride ourselves on customer service, and it's not great customer service to have people standing there for 10 minutes waiting to be called.

“We're kind of confined on space and we didn't have a way to add more slicers. So, we tried this route and it's worked out pretty well. So, if there is a long line, the kiosk is right in front of the deli. You can place your order, continue doing your shopping and then swing back at the end, pick up your order and go to the checkout. I know a lot of people put them in their stores to increase sales and such. For us it was a customer-service issue — to cut down on customer wait times.”

Other independents with outsized reputations for customer service have gone this route as well. Stew Leonard's officials expressed similar logic when they chose to install kiosks at their delis last year, with Tom Arthur, president of the company's Yonkers, N.Y., store, noting in a release that customers don't like to wait in line.

And, Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace in Troy, Mich., installed Nextep's Deli Express kiosks in January 2008 to help reduce customer “blow by” at their in-store delis. Later in the year, they worked with Nextep to add an online ordering interface to their company website.

Prepared-food departments should take special note of the convenience aspect as well, noted one industry expert.

“Supermarkets are great and prepared-food departments in supermarkets are good, but we have to understand that most people who frequent the supermarket aren't going to consider a prepared-foods department a destination location,” said Hiebert of IDDBA. “It's only convenient if you're already in the store. If you're just stopping for dinner, there are other places to do that quickly. But, if you're stopping on your way home, and you need milk and bread and eggs, then it can be convenient to pick up something from a prepared-foods department. A kiosk system can make that more efficient.”

Arnold emphasized that DLM's delis view the kiosks as a customer-service enhancement, rather than a replacement for deli associates. Echoing Paul's comments about customization, he noted that they do allow customers to get fairly specific about their orders — outlining how much meat they want and how they want it sliced, for example. And, there's even an option on the kiosks to inform the deli that a customer wants to talk to them about an order, but there are always going to be shoppers that would rather place their orders face-to-face, or customers who would like to ask for advice. And, there's always going to be special-order cases where it will simply be more efficient to talk directly to a deli associate.

“You can get very specific about how you want it made, but if you want a special-order tray made, there's no way to communicate that through the kiosk,” Arnold explained.

As ordering kiosks become more widespread in delis and prepared-food departments, Hiebert suggested that they could help supermarkets enhance the freshness image of their prepared foods by allowing them time to make some items on demand, rather than cooking items ahead of time.

“It gives the store more of an opportunity to say [customers] are getting something fresh to go, rather than getting something that's been sitting in a warming case. It's allows for food to be made on demand.”

Many retailers who pride themselves on service have had doubts about the systems, agreed one technology provider, but after launching a kiosk program, most have found that it benefits both primary users who prefer the speed and convenience of self-service, and the customers who prefer to continue talking and placing their orders with the service staff.

“A lot of them are of that mindset; they're very focused on service and customer interaction,” said Juan Perez, president and chief technology officer for Adusa. “But it's not a replacement for their people, it's an enhancement to their overall service. There is a subset of grocery customers who are mostly interested in getting in and getting out [when they shop]. Those customers are going to be loyal kiosk users and loyal self-service users period. And, that's a growing subset of retail grocery customers.

“There's another subset of customers that doesn't mind waiting in line at the deli to have their interaction with the person behind the counter, and see their product being sliced. And, adding a kiosk allows the deli and fresh foods associates to spend more time with those customers. Because, whereas before they might have had 30 or 40 people waiting in line during a rush, now they're only going to have half or a third of that.”

Percentage of customers who say they prefer placing orders at kiosks.

Source: Microsoft Retailspeak/IDDBA

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