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21st century 'vending machines' don't take cash

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By now, many consumers are familiar with the way purchases are made over the Internet using their credit cards. But a new type of vending machine aims to combine the ease of shopping online with the immediate gratification of buying items in a store.

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Sony is introducing new automated kiosks, starting with machines in three shopping malls, in a move to boost sales by making it as easy to buy electronic items as it is to grab a soda. The first devices will appear in malls in Atlanta, Boulder, Colo. and Santa Rosa, Calif. Zoom Systems, the San Francisco company providing the technology, prefers the term "robotic stores" to differentiate them from the more everyday vending machines most of us are used to.

These automated retail machines are indeed unique. Sony's branded kiosks will come in versions four feet and eight feet wide. A touch screen will show product information and details, as well as movie trailers and music videos. Sony products like cameras and batteries will be visible through a glass wall. Customers will choose an item using the screen, swipe a credit card and are delivered the product by a robotic arm. Product and pricing data is updated by an Internet connection. As sales occur, purchase information is sent online to a fulfillment center for analysis and speedy product replenishment.

By the end of 2006, Sony's branded automated stores will appear in malls, airports and grocery stores across the U.S. Other merchandise to be sold will include Memory Stick flash memory, MP3 players and CDs and DVDs from Sony Music and Sony Pictures. Prices will be similar to those at everyday retailers.

Only major credit cards and debit cards carrying the Visa or MasterCard will be accepted when making a purchase at one of these new-wave vending machines. To verify that the customer receives what he or she pays for, remote sensors will confirm that the product has been retrieved by the machine's robotic arm and removed from the tray before the credit card is charged. If the customer forgets to take his or her item, the tray will close after a set amount of time.

According to Sony, consumer acceptance of automated grocery store checkouts, familiarity with online sales and automated product replenishment systems that ensure shelves remains stocked have made this the right time to introduce these robotic stores.

To comment on this story, write Editors@CreditCards.com.

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Published: May 24, 2006


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