Multi-touch interactivity is helping to redefine the in-store customer experience.

4 min read

In the face of intense competition retailers are spending more on information technology, data analytics and digital marketing channels. Online shopping, social media platforms and mobile technologies are having a significant impact on the sector, permanently changing the way consumers shop. As a result, retailers need an omni-channel approach or they risk falling into anonymity and the retail graveyard!

A growing number of shopping trips are now starting at in-store kiosks. Most consumers understand how to use basic touch technology, whether swiping a screen or executing commands with their fingertips. Transposing touch, or rather multi-touch, into the retail space is seen as opening up a whole new array of opportunities for how customers interact with the retailer and each other.

"It's hard to imagine or justify the need for this technology (beyond simple gesture recognition) if the touchscreen is less than 20in, vertically mounted and the kiosk is designed for a single user interaction," argues Ian Crosby, sales and marketing director, Zytronic. "However, multi-touch screens really start to make sense when a larger display is mounted horizontally, where it can be used by several people at once."

According to Paolo Pedrazzoli, marketing operations manager, EMEA, for 3M's ESD division: "Retailers are now able to create immersive in-store product education helping brands to deliver consistent, accurate information and messaging to customers. For example, 'windows' on the screen can show in-store offers, stock availability, loyalty card information, home delivery booking, product guides, a store map, links to the Web and video demonstrations."

Pedrazzoli highlights the benefits of several people being able to interact at the same time. "Parents can carry on with their online product search while their children tap around on the 'magic' screen to their hearts' content," he suggests.

Multi-touch systems can, arguably, allow sales staff to focus on other priorities too. They can use the units as a means to assist in the sales process. Multi-touch kiosk systems can be used to extend floor space, virtually, draw attention to online products to customers in-store and encourage faster buying decisions, which in theory can increase turnover.

Consumers will, however, expect these technologies to always be consistent and responsive, hence the keen interest being shown in projected capacitive touch (PCT), which is transforming the multi-touch experience, providing very fast response times, even in low light conditions.

Multi-touch screens in a retail environment are going to experience heavy user traffic, so the screen has to be robust and not impacted by fingerprints affecting performance. The surface has to be intrinsically tough and safe while, at the same time, reacting smoothly to actual touches.

"The general public will want a self-service kiosk to be as intuitive and as easy to use as their own tablet or smart phone. In terms of specification, this means a millisecond quick and light touch response and a clear well designed GUI that enables the user to navigate smoothly to the service they require," says Crosby. "Successful deployments are based upon reliability and cost effectiveness, rather than purely system price."

Kiosk designers are expected to provide exciting designs that truly engage the user in an immersive way.

"One European company we are working with is developing a mobile vending machine, based within an electric vehicle and with a wide-screen multi-touch screen. In addition to being able to buy products, users will be able to interact with the kiosk, for instance entering competitions, redeeming loyalty coupons and so on," enthuses Pedrazzoli.

Today, most (transactional) kiosks incorporate a number of modules connected together – the touchscreen display, a secure card reader and encrypted PIN pad, a coin/note acceptor, a receipt printer, perhaps a bar code scanner and, increasingly, a RFID/NFC reader.

"These requirements often make for large, somewhat ungainly enclosure designs," believes Crosby. "Over time, I think we'll see more of the functions being handled through the touchscreen, enabling sleeker kiosk designs to be realised. However, there will remain a place for physical buttons for some applications (and to meet the needs of customers with disabilities) until such time as a viable, durable method of providing tactile feedback through the touchscreen is available."

Increasingly, kiosks need to be able to offer more than just simple monetary transactions or basic ordering functions. With customers' expecting kiosks to offer both emotional and functional experiences, there is a growing trend towards all-in-one systems which encompass all of a retailer's services, whether this is e-commerce, loyalty schemes or social media engagement.

Kiosks will have to be able to engage with the most up-to-date software, high speed internet access and compelling content refreshed on a regular basis. The physical hardware is also evolving; customers now expect sleek custom designs in keeping with retail brands and personal logos, rather than utilitarian boxes.

One future dynamic that needs to be taken into account, according to Crosby, is likely to be an increased awareness of kiosk cleanliness. "With stories of pandemics and health scares featuring heavily in the media in recent years, the general public is likely to become increasingly concerned when interacting with public kiosk. As a result, we envisage a trend towards materials with anti-microbial properties – even the touchscreen glass."

As kiosks become 'smarter', facial recognition technology is forecast to become used more widely and, as concerns over fraud mount, biometrics will be incorporated within kiosks, especially if a financial transaction is required, as a double or triple check against a PIN entry.

"Touchscreen kiosks handling transactions will also need to become PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant, as the liability for fraud is increasingly pushed from the banks and credit card companies to the merchants and operators of the kiosks," suggests Crosby. "This will require technologies, modules and software within and supporting the kiosks to undergo rigorous testing and approvals."

One technology that is unlikely to be adopted in any meaningful way, at least in the short term, is 4K for the kiosk display. From a technical perspective, the main issue appears to be latency and the sheer quantity of data that the hardware and software supporting the 4K screen has to handle.

4K may have more of an impact on very large displays, suggests Crosby. "Users would benefit from the higher pixel density of a UHD display in such applications where the user is literally at arm's length from the display and consequently closer to the content on display and more aware of the clarity and crispness of the images."

The next few years are likely to see big changes in the retail POS kiosk market, according to Christian Jeske, marketing director with Pyramid Computer. "On the technology front, hardware and software costs will reduce, whilst enabling more powerful features, which will allow the technology to proliferate throughout the retail sector.

"However, only when retailers stop seeing e-commerce as competition, instead of a new integrated business model, will the market develop quicker that has hitherto been the case."