Consumer Products

Sony Accesses a new retail channel

For most of us, our first impulse buy involved a quarter, hard won by begging mom, and a gumball machine. But like most things these days, the concept's gotten a bit more high-tech. Consumer electronics and entertainment giant Sony is currently testing the waters with eight-foot tall, souped up vending machines that can dispense up to 100 SKUs of the company's latest and greatest merch. The goal is to find out exactly just what kids and, most importantly, their credit-card toting parents will be willing to buy on a whim, perhaps opening up a whole new supplemental retail channel for its goods.
August 1, 2006

For most of us, our first impulse buy involved a quarter, hard won by begging mom, and a gumball machine. But like most things these days, the concept’s gotten a bit more high-tech. Consumer electronics and entertainment giant Sony is currently testing the waters with eight-foot tall, souped up vending machines that can dispense up to 100 SKUs of the company’s latest and greatest merch. The goal is to find out exactly just what kids and, most importantly, their credit-card toting parents will be willing to buy on a whim, perhaps opening up a whole new supplemental retail channel for its goods.

Dubbed the Sony Access project, the company partnered with San Francisco, California-based Zoom Systems to place 10 automated kiosks in shopping malls, airports and high-end grocery stores across the U.S. Zoom, the custom manufacturer of these robotic stores, worked with the likes of Apple and Motorola and gained placement for the machines at Safeway and Macy’s locations before pairing up with Sony.

Flat-screen monitors let consumers know what’s available and making a purchase involves just pressing a few buttons on a touch screen and swiping a credit or debit card. Right now Sony is stocking the kiosks with a continuously rotating lineup including the PlayStation Portable player, its corresponding games and movies (kid fave Stuart Little 3 was a recent offering), and digital cameras that can run up to US$250 apiece.

After 18 months of internal planning, the first Access outlets appeared this past June in shopping malls in Atlanta, Georgia, Boulder, Colorado, and Santa Rosa, California. At press time, Bruce Schwartz, senior manager of new business development for Sony Media and Application Solutions divisions, says there are plans to install seven more kiosks at various airports and grocery stores.

Ultimately, Schwartz says his company is looking to find out if consumers will buy a large part of its product offering on impulse. He points out self-service-checkout options at grocery stores are growing in popularity and thinks that putting these machines in locations such as airports will be a good fit for travelers who might want to pick up a new PSP game or movie for themselves or their wee ones while they’re waiting for a flight.

Furthermore, Schwartz says research conducted by Zoom suggests high-end grocery stores are also hot spots for making pricier impulse purchases. He says the research indicates the convenience of one-stop shopping motivates consumers to buy products typically found at specialty stores like cameras from a vending machine located within a larger store.

This system also makes sales research and inventory management a snap. Zoom kiosks are outfitted with broadband connections and keep automated logs, allowing Sony to stay right on top of transactions as they take place. When a machine runs low on a certain product it sends an automatic alert to Zoom, which dispatches someone to restock it.

At this point, Schwartz says Sony doesn’t have plans to replace its retail stores with automated machines. If the test is successful, however, consumers might just see Sony kiosks popping up across the U.S. soon – and maybe even Europe and Asia. Access isn’t competitive with bricks-and-mortar retail stores, but rather complementary, Schwartz stresses. ‘We believe that there are incremental sales that we are not capturing out there in the marketplace [and Access] will be able to capture them.’

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