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Kroger debuts kiosk concept at area college campus

ONU kiosk offers 164 basic items

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Kroger Co. has a robotic kiosk about the size of an enclosed bus stop on the Ohio Northern University Campus in Ada, Ohio. Prices for the kiosk's items are the same as at the chain's traditional stores.

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ADA, Ohio -- Imagine a grocery store without checkout lanes, cashiers, or shopping carts.

Kroger Co. already has.

Last month Cincinnati-based Kroger, the nation's largest traditional supermarket chain, opened a robotic grocery kiosk in Ada, Ohio, that could be part of the company's future.

"We're kind of testing it to see how it goes," company spokesman Jackie Siekmann said of the new Kroger Shop24 Kiosk on the campus of Ohio Northern University. "We've had a lot of positive feedback.

"There are a lot of kids who are in the dorms and who don't have cars or access to a car, so this is close by and they can do sort of their basic shopping," she said.

About the size of an enclosed bus stop, the robotic kiosk is a self-contained, refrigerated vending machine that can carry up to 200 items. It is restocked daily with such staples as toiletries, cleaning supplies, and perishables that include fresh milk, bread, fruit, and ground beef. It accepts cash, debit cards, credit cards, and federal supplemental nutrition-assistance program cards.

Kroger, which partnered with Ohio Northern on the robotic store venture, purchased the 10-by-13-foot kiosk from Shop24 Global, a Columbus firm that makes grocery vending machines used widely in Europe. Since Kroger's Shop24 debuted Jan. 19, officials from five other universities have come to observe it, company officials said.

Kroger is stocking the machine with 164 items, changing the mix regularly to accommodate customers' preferences but also to handle the grocery chain's special promotions such as sub sandwiches, relish trays, and chicken wings for the Super Bowl, and flowers and chocolates for Valentine's Day.

"Mostly, it's snacks and a couple of perishables. … But I think the neatest piece it brings to the university is it enhances a person's time spent on campus," said Tim White-Hoffman, manager of the Kroger store in Kenton, about 15 miles away, which restocks the robotic kiosk daily.

"A smaller town might not have as many things to offer nearby. This enhances that shopping experience for students and allows them to buy items they may otherwise have to make a special trip somewhere else to get," Mr. White-Hoffman said. "Or say that what the dining hall is serving that morning doesn't fit with their needs. They can get fresh yogurt and fruit from the kiosk if they want."

Kyle Wagner of Toledo, a freshman at Ohio Northern, has found the Kroger kiosk useful. "There's not really a Kroger around here," he said. "The closest is probably Lima, but this is like a minute walk from my dorm."

Mr. Wagner said he uses the kiosk mainly "to get Gatorade or something like sports drinks and such." But he said he likes that it carries basic necessities, such as toiletries and laundry soap.

More important, items are priced as they are in a Kroger store, Mr. Wagner added. "I don't think they've boosted the price at all. There's nothing there that's outrageously priced."

Mr. White-Hoffman confirmed the kiosk prices are the same as in a larger Kroger store and said it will carry some of the store-advertised specials at times. Because the machine's technology can't read Kroger's Plus Card loyalty card, items in the kiosk are priced to include Plus Card discounts, he said.

Chicago-based supermarket consultant Bill Bishop said Kroger appears to be trying two things with its robotic store. "All the big supermarket companies are looking for new market opportunities, and this is certainly a new market opportunity. This is sort of a 22nd-century convenience store. It's serving as an outpost for Kroger," he said.

A number of retailers are using different types of technology to improve customer service and cut costs. "This certainly improves service for the customers they serve, and it does help cut their costs," Mr. Bishop said.

Stephen Breech, a Columbus grocery industry expert, said Kroger has been a leading-edge company and this is just another way for it to get to customers it ordinarily hasn't reached. "Everyone is nipping at the grocery store business. I think for them to come up with this is pretty clever," he said.

But Mr. Breech said it will take time to decide whether the idea is worth expanding or should be abandoned. "I think they'll put a few of these out there, and then they'll take a hard look at it and make a judgment," he said. "I'm just not sure how cost-effective it will all be … when you have to pay people to maintain it."

A big question for Kroger is how much use its kiosk store will get once the summer arrives and the campus is largely devoid of its student body. Mr. White-Hoffman said Kroger hopes local residents will use the kiosk. Also, Ohio Northern hosts summer camps for athletes and others who Kroger hopes will use the Shop24.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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