Are Intrusive Questions From Kiosks Still A Customer’s Preference?

Written by Evan Schuman
May 12th, 2011

As kiosks have been getting more sophisticated, retailers have been relying on them to handle more functions. When it comes to sensitive issues, such as body type for an apparel chain or paying for groceries with foodstamps, chains have discovered that consumers are often more comfortable interacting with a machine.

One convenience chain found that level of anonymity sharply boosted profits when selling triple-sized sandwiches and Pennsylvania is hoping that having a machine tell customers they’re too drunk to buy wine will be less humiliating. But with data breaches an almost daily news story and data-sharing presumed to be everywhere, will customers continue to stay comfortable with sharing intimacies with kiosks? That question is being raised now with the latest push on clothing kiosks that use radio waves to take hundreds of thousands of measurements to deliver what the machine promises will be the perfect clothing fit.

The kiosks are hardly new, but we are starting to see changes in consumer attitudes. The original belief was that a kiosk could be trusted to precisely map out a recent belly bulge and deliver flattering outfits. Has that now flipped?

Is the belief that a store associate will invariably forget the figures in 10 minutes and move onto the next customer, while the kiosk will store it and potentially share it with 2 million other computers? (Maybe a new version of 2001: A Space Odyssey? “Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?” “Affirmative, Dave, I read you.” “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” “What’s the problem?” “You’ve put on some weight, Dave. A lot of weight, according to the space suit fitting kiosk. You’re no longer qualified for the space program, and I can’t take your orders anymore.”)

This topic cropped up in a discussion this week over at RetailWire, where the latest such kiosks were being debated. An intriguing comment came from Lee Peterson at WD Partners: “Isn’t it a bit like asking a woman, or anyone nowadays, their weight (even if it is a machine)? Lots of luck.”

In short, have the days when kiosks could get away with asking such questions now gone for good? Peterson pointed to an early such trial with Levi’s flagship store in San Francisco. “Totally bombed. This failure could relate to one of the other questions today regarding tracking. If you’re not exactly um, ‘self-confident’ when it comes to your physique and you’re even slightly paranoid that those numbers are going to wind up in the wrong hands, this’ll never fly. And let’s face it, there are not many consumers out there that are both self confident and non-paranoid.”

We’ve written about other shortcomings of these systems, such as a lack of partners offering deep enough assortments of clothes that can be suggested by the kiosk. These systems tend to do the least wise move: lots of focus on pointing to the most popular sizes. But the customers with those sizes don’t need a kiosk’s help. The goldmine is to help customers with odd sizes and get them connected with clothes, the long-tail approach. It’s one that boosts sales quite a bit.

First, though, consumers have to learn to trust these machines, which resemble the airport security full-body scanners far too much. What if a customer goes in and doesn’t make the selection the kiosk wants? In the customer’s mind, will it lock the customer in or will the kiosk podbay doors always open?


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