In airports, people are spending more and more money at vending machines, giving retailers a great reason to come up with creative new ideas to sell stuff in a human-free or at least more automated environment. If a future filled robot-powered stores sounds a little bit dystopian, you're coming at it from the wrong angle. It's actually not as anti-social as it sounds.
iPod-filled vending machines have adorned airport terminals for years, and it's not hard to understand why they've been wildly successful. The incredibly efficient machines don't require much upkeep, take up little space and make sense for buyers in a hurry. Brookstone, America's favorite massage chair store, told The New York Times that electronics make up the "fastest growing part" of their business in airports, but they're facing growing competition from companies like Best Buy that are reaping terrific profit margins from their vending machine business. With customers becoming more comfortable with giving a machine $100 and getting a new set of earbuds, traditional retailers are looking for better ways to use technology to streamline the shopping experience.
Apple, unsurprisingly, is leading the charge for technology-assisted shopping. In the wake of Black Friday madness, Brian X. Chen explained some new Apple Store features at The Times's Bits blog. It's now completely possible to buy items on the Apple Store app while walking around the mall, eat a Cinnabon before heading over to the store and have an Apple employee hand you your purchases when you walk in. If you're just browsing, the same technology can beckon employees "using a system similar to the button you press on an airplane to get help from a flight attendant," to borrow Chen's words.
Taking advantage of GPS-powered smartphones and displaying product information on iPads is still a far cry from getting a robot to do your shopping, but it's heading in that direction. In the absence of cyborgs assistants, technology is making shopping easier, faster and better, because frankly you probably have better things to do. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently explained to Steve Levy at Wired how his company was working hard to remove humans from the equation entirely:
Every time a customer contacts us, we see it as a defect. I’ve been saying for many, many years, people should talk to their friends, not their merchants. And so we use all of our customer service information to find the root cause of any customer contact. What went wrong? Why did that person have to call? Why aren’t they spending that time talking to their family instead of talking to us?
Anyone who's ever waited in line for more than five minutes just to give somebody money ought to empathize with this idea.
So how about those vending machines? Japan's been selling all kinds of crazy crap from machines for years -- they love all things robotic over there -- and it might not be too much longer before you too can rent bowling shoes from a giant robot.