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Published: Saturday, 8/28/2010

Self-serve kiosks expand beyond airline tickets

MIAMI HERALD

MIAMI - Consumers accustomed to using self-service kiosks to withdraw cash, pay for groceries, and check in for flights are finding do-it-yourself computer stations in new and sometimes unexpected places.

Some doctors' offices are using the stations to check in patients. Hotel customers can check in or even buy accessories such as bathing suits. Movie tickets, cruise-line boarding passes, and DVD movie rentals can, in many places, be picked up with the swipe of a credit card.

"We're seeing self-service technology take off in really in every industry," said Jeff Dudash, spokesman for NCR, the company that creates most of these machines and invented the automated teller machine.

That's because customers are used to having more control, and for the most part, they're loving it, said trend researchers.

Forrester Research, a leader in tracking technology trends, reported 61 percent of U.S. adults who are active online want to scan and pay for purchases using self-checkout options, and 74 percent who have used kiosks say they are useful.

BuzzBack Market Research, which managed a survey for its client NCR, said 81 percent of North Americans surveyed were more likely to choose retailers that let them use self-service options.

Although kiosks can save business owners some staff costs, many who have adopted self-service technology have found the real advantages are saving time and putting staff to work on other customer-service areas.

At Paragon Grove 13, a new reserved-seating movie theater in Coconut Grove, Fla., with 85 employees, many tickets are sold by kiosk. Only two box office employees are required. But staff are still needed to help customers find their seats and to serve concessions.

"Now they are more face-to-face with the guests," said Alberto Santana, vice president of operations for Paragon Grove 13. "It's more individual customer service."

At West Boca Medical Center in Boca Raton, Fla., self-service options are more of a time saver than money saver. Its four NCR touch-screen kiosks and two wireless touch-screen tablets allow patients to check themselves into its Diagnostic Imaging Center. Returning patients confirm information on the screens, freeing receptionists for other tasks.

"Lots of people thought the big concern would be with seniors being not as in tune with technology as the younger generation," but that wasn't the case, said Gary Grandovic, imaging center director.

NCR's latest push is Blockbuster Express DVD machines that have been appearing in Publix Supermarkets throughout South Florida, with more than 7,000 added nationwide over the past year.

The kiosks compete with the Redbox unit of Coinstar Inc., which this month announced it's rolling out its similar $1-a-night DVD rental machines in all CVS pharmacy stores. Nationwide, Illinois-based Redbox has about 26,900 kiosks.

Machines are making these tasks faster, but owners say they won't eliminate humans.

Emily Yellin, author of the customer service book Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us, hasn't been a big fan of kiosks since one malfunctioned when she tried to get movie tickets in New York.

The human customer service that followed the incident was also poor.

“Self-service can be helpful and sometimes is preferable,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Technology can improve the customer service we get … but it can't be done without regard for our common humanity and the very real feeling many people have of being dehumanized by machines.”

Not all sectors of self-service take off as fast as expected. The Grand Beach hotel in Miami, which put in a kiosk this summer for quick check-ins, said it hasn't been used much.

Customers seem to prefer talking to a person when they are starting their vacations and learning about the hotel, staff members said.

But the kiosk has been used for a familiar transaction: printing airline boarding passes.

Such anecdotes may allay fears that the machines will take away jobs, experts said.

“People worry that if you replace all these people with machines, they lose their jobs,” said Florida International University economics professor Peter Thompson.

That's unlikely, he said.

Meanwhile, customers demand more from mobile screens than from stand-alone kiosks, said Owen Wild, vice president of NCR's travel division. “We see that as a natural evolution and extension, not as a competitor, particularly in travel,” he said.

The company delivers airline boarding passes and flight check in via mobile devices, including smart phones.



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