Portable Profiles

Last week I talked about my wanting traditional retailers to send purchase data to customers for their use at home. While it will be some time before that idea catches on, the concept of sending profiles in the other direction may be catching on.

For years, we’ve dabbled with kiosks. Yes, those stand-alone terminals in stores that, well, stand alone with no users to be found.

Many of the early kiosks were multimedia, video-enhanced appliances that provided more glitz than information. I recall seeing a kiosk that displayed attractive pictures of all the styles of men’s shoes. Unfortunately, the kiosk was located in a shoe store, where it was easier to actually try on the shoes than to wrestle with the kiosk.

Then, starting in 1995, it became possible to have a web-based kiosk by using the kiosk mode on Netscape and other browsers. The limitations of dial-up modems and problems with hardware kept those projects from catching on, but the idea of self-service kiosks has continued to endure – and it looks like it will finally find its place in the world.

Today’s Internet kiosks are more stable and have faster Internet connections. And it’s a little surprising at the number of places where Internet kiosks are showing up.

For instance, there are thousands of cyber cafes around the world where people can meet, eat, and surf the Net. With the popularity of web-based email services, people are not locked into using a particular computer, so Internet kiosks can be used to check mail, find directions with map sites, and do many of the tasks normally done at home or in the office.

In addition, Internet kiosks are now available at airports, where travelers can check mail between flights without pulling out their laptops and trying to find a telephone connection. Even truckers are now finding Internet kiosks available at booths in truck stops.

Perhaps one of the more surprising places where Internet kiosks are showing up is within corporations. It’s surprising because so many employees already have a computer on their desk connected to an internal Internet. So, why do they need Internet kiosks?

Many companies have not connected their internal LANs directly to the outside Internet, so workers don’t have access to the web. These internal web sites are operated by Human Resources, providing access to policy manuals, individual benefits, and other personal data.

But one of the most exciting uses of Internet kiosks will be in traditional retail stores.

A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report on Internet trends for the coming year indicated that in-store Internet kiosks will help traditional retailers reinforce their Internet presence.

I’m sure it will, but some retailers will see that they can do even more with these devices by taking advantage of “portable profiles.” By allowing consumers to shop and update their profile from the comfort of their homes, subsequently logging on to the retailer’s web site from the store, customers can show a salesperson exactly what they’re looking for.

Picture a shopper sitting at home browsing around a web site, adding items to her personal shopping list for later consideration, then selecting the mall where she’ll be shopping. When the shopper arrives at the store, she goes to the customer service center where her items are available for purchase. If the shopper needs to show a store clerk exactly what is on her shopping list, she can log on using an in-store Internet kiosk.

While this may sound like something in the future, consider the recent study published by Indiana University and KPMG LLP about consumer preferences for the use of technology in stores.

When consumers were asked if they were willing to share their body measurements, only 20 percent responded positively. Yet, they were much more positive toward the concept of body scanning and mass customization, with 60 percent saying they were more likely to shop at a store with the technology.

It may be surprising that so many people are willing to step in front of a body scanner and have their profile (and front view) stored in a computer. However, consumers are reluctant to share personal information only until they see a clear benefit – and custom tailored clothing would be a real benefit.

So, are we going to see shoppers bringing their passwords to the mall this Christmas season? Not until traditional retailers see that in-store web kiosks can help make shopping more convenient for the customer, and potentially more profitable for the retailer.

In the meantime, if you’re reading this in a cyber cafe, have a double espresso for me.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.