Wal-Mart to Introduce Web Kiosks in All Stores by May

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday said that it will install 3,000 Web kiosks in its stores across the country.


The nation's largest retailer plans to have Internet-linked kiosks by the end of May in every Wal-Mart store and Supercenters. NCR Corp. will supply the kiosks that will be known as the Automated Customer Service Machines.


Housing the gift registry, the kiosks will be placed near the jewelry department. Shoppers will be able to create baby, bridal and birthday registries by scanning items they would like to include.


"It just creates a lot of loyalty and it also is a good customer acquisition tool because if someone signs up for the registry, then they send that out to people who are going to buy gifts for them," said Barrett LaMothe Ladd, senior retail analyst at Gomez Inc., Waltham, MA.


Teams from Wal-Mart and NCR's Human Factors Engineering group developed the registry software.


With this move, Wal-Mart, Bentonville, AR, joins a pantheon of retailers offering online shopping options to their bricks-and-mortar customers.


"This is a completely new initiative for Wal-Mart," Ladd said. "The comparison you want to bring in is that Target has had great success with its registry, whether it's baby or bridal. It claims to be the No. 1 bridal registry in the country."


"The challenge," she pointed out, "is going to be one, monitoring every single kiosk to make sure that it's always running, training both consumers and sales associates in how to use the Web kiosk and making sure that it has an attractive interface and selection."


Only last month, Kmart Corp., the nation's No. 2 discount retailer, said it had installed BlueLight.com Web kiosks in more than half of its stores nationwide. Kmart owns 60 percent of BlueLight.


More than 3,500 BlueLight shopping kiosks are in 1,100 of Kmart's 2,100-plus stores, offering nearly 200,000 products for sale - twice the inventory in stores. The total effort so far cost $2 million for BlueLight, San Francisco.


Found in the service desk and electronics and sporting goods departments of Kmart stores, the kiosks connect to BlueLight.com, which accepts and fulfills all orders. Products bought via these kiosks can be returned at any Kmart store, a functionality that further marries the retail chain's online and offline operations.


Plans call for installation by next year of BlueLight kiosks in all Kmart stores nationwide, though at a higher cost because the remaining stores lack intranet stations.


Until Wal-Mart's announcement, Kmart's kiosk effort arguably was one of the most ambitious undertaken by any major retailer nationwide.


While Lids, Staples, REI, Wal-Mart, Service Merchandise, Borders, Gap and other retailers have launched in-store Web kiosks, none match the national reach of Kmart. (Wal-Mart so far was testing kiosks in select stores.) Presence in Kmart stores will give BlueLight access to the 30 million shoppers who walk in each week to shop.


But the kiosks also benefit Kmart in terms of incremental sales or potential lost business.


Indeed, Web kiosks are now on the minds of many retailers.


Market researcher Computer Economics Inc., Carlsbad, CA, estimated last year there would be 298,000 interactive kiosks installed in stores nationwide and 584,000 installed worldwide. By 2004, the United States will have 785,000 such kiosks; an estimated 1.7 million will exist worldwide.


But the success of in-store Web kiosks depend on attitudinal changes, both among consumers and employees. Plus, there's the issue of shopping and buying on the Web, itself a late 1990s phenomenon.


In-store kiosks failed for Ames Department Stores. Kiosks in 20 stores over three months yielded only one customer a day. The typical Ames customer did not have a PC or didn't use one so the technology was wasted.


Wal-Mart may have some of the same issues as Ames.


The $165 billion retailer will attempt to bank on its greatest asset: a large chunk of the 100 million customers who weekly visit Wal-Mart stores in the United States and worldwide. But it is the type of customers that matters most, especially in adopting new shopping habits.


"The big challenge is, are Wal-Mart consumers going to use this?" Ladd asked. "Because a lot of Wal-Mart customers are from rural areas, lower income, lower educated. They're not as Web savvy compared to someone who's shopping at Nordstrom."


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