Touch of inspiration

Interactive kiosks have fallen out of favour with the retail industry, but Boots the Chemists is nonetheless planning to introduce them into its stores.

Boots the Chemists has decided to use interactive screens in its newly refurbished flagship store in Manchester. The initiative contradicts current thinking in the retail industry, which seemed to have given up on interactive customer services. Several years ago a number of retailers introduced high profile interactive kiosks – many of them quietly withdrew them later on.

In an effort to create a “living magazine”, Boots has combined five screens, deployed in different areas of the Manchester store, with an extensive array of information provided through leaflets and permanent fixtures.

Boots external communications manager Priscilla Dawson says the touchscreens are part of an initiative to “inspire and excite” customers about health and beauty products.

In the healthcare area, customers can engage in a series of steps to find solutions to specific ailments, from back pain to diarrhoea, using a diagram of the human body on-screen. The screen explains the cause, reveals treatments and tells customers how they can help themselves, before printing all the information with details of where to find the products in-store.

There are also screens in the men’s area, providing advice on grooming, and an interactive styling kiosk where customers can test several pairs of sunglasses at once, using a split screen. Another screen provides comprehensive information about perfume and advises shoppers on what fragrances most suit them, while the fifth enables customers to process details of their camera films ready for printing.

There are also “test and play” areas, allowing customers to assess a variety of health and beauty products, including make-up, lipsticks and eye-liners. Hosker Moore & Kent developed the beauty business unit.

“We want to encourage people to feel less intimidated about buying from behind the counter and these areas make it really accessible to experiment in a non-threatening way,” explains Dawson.

HM&K founding partner Louise Hosker believes there has been a “dramatic shift” in retailing over the past ten years. “Retailing in this country is quite sophisticated now – it is about helping customers make decisions, without force-feeding them,” she says.

“The new millennium will see the customer in control and retailers have to examine very carefully what their customer expects and needs from them.”

“You can’t just put products on the shelves and expect them to sell themselves. You need to help customers make more informed decisions by offering advice and getting people to interact with products,” adds Hosker.

Interactive Media in Retail Group has carried out extensive research on interactive shopping, with a series of results in favour of it. IMRG managing director Jo Tucker says interactive elements are “terribly important developments. They enable consumers to [ask] their own questions at their leisure and they are the future”.

20/20 Design and Strategy Consultants developed Boots’ healthcare area. Business development director Yaron Meshoulam echoes Tucker’s advocacy of touchscreens in retailing, but says their location in the store is crucial. “They need to answer particular requirements. Too often touchscreens are used willy-nilly. They could be appropriate in every sector of retail, but not necessarily every instance. Retailers need to ask what problems they are trying to overcome and whether a touchscreen is an appropriate solution,” he says.

“It’s about building a dialogue with customers… Interactive technology provides an opportunity for the retailer to ask the right kinds of questions that allow customers to feel more confident about shopping.”

20/20 has created interactive units for Virgin Megastores and Japanese car manufacturer Daewoo, but was not involved with the Boots interactive system, which was developed in-house.

Meshoulam maintains that touchscreens were an integral part of introducing Daewoo into the UK car market. “The key element was that nobody trusts car salesmen and we were launching a new car brand into [this] sector. It enabled people to get answers to questions before speaking to salesmen.”

But Retail Intelligence head of consultancy Clive Vaughan is sceptical about such units, citing their initial failure a few years ago. “Retailers trialed them three or four years ago, but they seemed to fizzle out,” he recalls.

“It is not the way to create a sustainable competitive advantage and most people would feel odd about using them. Interactivity is more about what staff can do and successful retailers over the next ten years will be those who give good customer service. This is one of the reasons for John Lewis’ success,” adds Vaughan.

Katy Howell, the business development manager at interactive software developer Billco Multimedia, attributes the hiatus in the use of interactive screens to cost. But she is optimistic that they will be increasingly used in the future.

“Retailers were initially put off interactive kiosks because the capital expenditure was high, but the price is dropping and it is now a viable option,” says Howell.

“Although people want to speak to someone face-to-face on certain subjects, they can be quite shy. Customers are often much happier going to a machine than asking a person.”

Having seen Hasbro’s sales of games via interactive kiosks double over the past two years, Howell is confident that a new retail trend will develop. “They will definitely take off,” she predicts. “We will begin to see large retailers having more kiosks, especially with all the staff cuts that are taking place. They are no longer purely for providing information, but also for driving sales.”

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