Self-Service Trends

The Unattended Gap: Why It’s Time for Traditional Retail to Take the Plunge

March 13, 2020 | By Maeve Duska

The Unattended Gap: Why It’s Time for Traditional Retail to Take the Plunge

The bigger the ship, the harder it is to change course.  This old adage applies directly to retail right now, as companies and brands grapple with how best to innovate and serve a new kind of tech-savvy consumer.

Unattended and self-serve retail are growing in demand and expanding into new and non-traditional markets, as shoppers pursue fast, simple, and seamless purchase and payment experiences. Gone are the days of a high-value, high-touch retail buying experience. Consumers are now doing research, interacting with brands, comparison shopping and buying: all on their hand-held devices. They have been reconditioned by constant interactions with technology and, are more comfortable interacting using hardware and software than with the person standing in front of them. There is lots to unpack here if we want to talk about impact on psyche and sociology (I’ll buy the first beer), but for retailers, it spells opportunity – and one that is largely untapped today.

We are now not only seeing the vast chasm between consumer expectation for unattended retail and the options actually available to them, we can quantify it.

When I recently spoke with PYMNTS about a survey we did together, we discussed how only one in every ten consumers who WANT to buy via an unattended machine actually do so. The other 90% represent a huge gap in the consumer experience and massive growth potential for the retailers and brands looking to reinvigorate declining sales or reengage an interested consumer. 


So, what’s the hold up?

The concept of unattended retail truly scares retailers. It’s a huge departure from their traditional business model; they fear losing control of the customer experience or creating a sub-optimal experience that will erode the brand, and they lack the current infrastructure to support the scale.

The good news is that the technology exists to create a similar or even better experience in an unattended setting, as would be offered in person. Technology lets us know who the customer is, remember their preferences, make recommendations, reward loyalty, customize options, and enable frictionless payment. Technology also lets the retailer know what is selling, to whom, if the machine needs to be restocked and when and can make recommendations about what to bring or new items to consider adding. Why would anyone talk to a store attendant ever again?

Despite the lack of broad scale, there are a few success stories to emulate, such as at the airport, where everything from earbuds to cosmetics are offered to satisfy last-minute impulse buys from travelers, and for traditional retailers, self-checkout lanes and kiosks have been the slow walk into the unattended retail green field. The path has been a bit more natural for smaller, more entrepreneurial companies that don’t have to shift business models but, can make the leap right into unattended retail as inherent in their strategy – rather than a change to it.

Whether large or small, there’s incentive for companies to add unattended retail as a dedicated channel — particularly since the data found that individuals with the highest incomes were most interested in trying unattended shopping experiences.

When it comes to paying with your phone (the holy grail, because the demographic has more money and spends more money more often) we found that 78 percent of digital wallet users want to make non-traditional unattended retail purchases and will buy everything from books to clothes to health and beauty items from a machine if given the opportunity.

The next five years will bring with it an accelerated move to all-things unattended. Large retailers would be wise to embrace it now or face stiff competition from those more agile. The good news is pent up consumer demand and unattended retail technology that is available today remove a lot of the risk. The only ones not at the unattended table en masse are the retailers themselves. Let’s hope they get there before the table is turned on retail as they know it, forever.


Maeve Duska

Chief Marketing Officer

With more than 15 years of experience at USA Technologies, Maeve is passionate about sharing her expertise and knowledge in unattended retail and how platforms like USAT’s are enabling solutions through payments. She is an active contributor to Forbes and a frequent presenter at industry conferences such as CES, NAMA, and Money 20/20.

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