Kiosks: Back to the Future.

New materials and new technologies are crafting a whole new generation of trendy yet functional kiosks. Here’s what’s on the horizon for this backbone of specialty retail.

What is the one thing retailers would really love and can never get enough of? You guessed it…sales!

In the world of specialty retail, still mostly dominated by kiosks and RMUs in the common area, image, as the saying goes, is everything. Well, almost everything. Leading the way in the looks department are kiosk manufacturers whose continually evolving designs and innovative melding of technology, lighting and materials are creating magic in the common area and successfully drawing customers in for that all-important sale.

Common area challenges for kiosks

While most shoppers walk into large stores open to the idea of buying, the common area is usually a different can of beans. “When you walk into a store, a shopper has the commitment to shop, when somebody is in the common area, they’re in essence, in their own personal bubble,” points out Sharon Loeff, President of Shopworks Inc., a retail consultancy company with a strong component in kiosk and RMU design. The psychology of the common-area shopper is never going to change, she points out, so it is the job of the well-designed (and well-merchandised) kiosk to speak to the customer from afar, to create intrigue. “It’s not the expectation of service, it’s an expectation of curiosity. The most successful kiosk operators are able to turn that curiosity into a sale.”

Exactly how do they do this? By designing the best kiosk using the best materials and best design and technology given the various constraints they work with. While mall developers routinely enforce sight lines as a matter of course for common-area installations, the physical environment itself can present challenges. Today’s kiosks and RMUs must be ready for the weather (after all, they’re frequently installed outdoors), must withstand wear and tear, must seamlessly integrate technology, must be easy to assemble and merchandise, and must use lighting effectively, among a long list of requirements.

Another nice-to-have? Designs that complement the shopping center’s existing aesthetic, says Karen Larson, Director of Specialty Leasing at Urban Retail Properties, a national retail property management company. “In the past you used to go to a mall and the kiosks were just a hodgepodge, they were a jumble of cases put together with not much form or function,” Larson says, “now the look is to convey a sense of permanence.” This also has an additional benefit of assuaging hesitant buyers that the kiosk retailers are not fly-by-night operators but are instead a wholly integral part of the shopping center’s suite of offerings.

Blake Sandberg, Co-founder, Business Development & Innovation at Sand Mountain Inc., a kiosk manufacturer, says that one of the biggest challenges is to design kiosks generic enough that the mall can own and merchandise a variety of products on while yet working well for every category be it T-shirts or jewelry or phones.

Make way for mobile

At a time when shopping centers are increasingly invested in curating their merchandise, a convenient way to achieve this same effect is to move existing common-area retailers around for a more fresh and updated look. The result is an increasing demand for kiosks and RMUs that are mobile and can be wheeled around easily.

“In a lot of the older centers the kiosk was anchored to the floor and having to remove it required putting in new tile or covering it up in some way,” Larson says, “the trend now is to make them more mobile, whether it’s through wheels or some other lock-in system. They can be reconfigured to accommodate whatever the look is.”

Sandberg agrees saying that he sees an increasing emphasis on mobility in kiosk design trends. “Gone are the days when telephones or helicopters were sold in the same location for ten years. These days, there’s a lot more movement.” Sand Mountain sells a system called Shop360 which is a system of modular components that can be arranged in a variety of permutations and combinations lending itself toward the flexibility that is increasingly being called for in the mall common area.

Material world

Such flexibility and mobility increase wear and tear on materials so kiosk manufacturers are on the lookout for new materials that are long-lasting and look good. “We’re seeing a lot of resins, custom resins that were formed in rich patterns,” Sandberg says, “many of the units are clad in that instead of wood. Stainless steel is also being used for a high-end look. Black and white is a popular look and we’re seeing marble being used in counters and other areas.”

Loeff points out that there’s always a fine line to walk between materials that make a kiosk appealing and its long-term utility. Laminate chips she points out, look great, but when they need repairs, you essentially have to replace the entire panel, which makes for an expensive proposition. When wood veneer chips, it’s still wood, you can touch it up, she adds.

Small details for materials were also incorporated into the design for American Kiosk Management’s new virtual reality kiosk at Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas, says Trisha Kee, Vice President, Experiential Environments at Plus Studios, the designer for the specialized kiosk. Since the bottom of the kiosk was liable to get nicked during routine cleaning, they decided to make the ramp leading to the kiosk floor with metal. The kiosk floor itself is a special vinyl material, Kee says.

Light On

Kiosk designers are also increasingly turning to lighting as a way of attracting mall-goers’ attention. Take the example of Wide Angle Marketing’s Meatball Obsession kiosk. The entire front panel is made of tile and back-lit for an arresting effect.

To create a special bubble and flask effect for their Bubbleology kiosk, Wide Angle invented a lighting system that used “beakers”—a metal fabricator built a UL-approved light that hangs in each beaker and shines through colored resin in each to create a dramatic display.

Shannon Juett of STAK Design says the company uses localized lighting to have kiosks stand out in darker areas of the mall. Backlit displays make the difference in such cases. Lighting has to be subtle and draw customers without being a major distraction, Larson says. Strobe lights are out. Industry professionals agree that kiosk lighting, especially with the advent of new LED technologies, is going to be a huge trend to keep an eye out for in the industry. Gee says the lighting for the virtual reality kiosk was LED with a DMX controller that can be used to change the lighting every few minutes if need be. Loeff says to keep an eye on a whole host of LED materials including entire flat panels.

The lighting component is an integral part of graphics these days, Sandberg says, whether the signage is digital or a light box or just a panel done in vinyl.

Tech talk

Along with lighting, other aspects of technology are increasingly going to be integrated into kiosks especially as tech-savvy millennials seek the next big experience at the mall. AKM’s virtual reality kiosk is a prime example. Digital is going to be integrated with the merchandise, not just by having digital signage but through other ways such as touch-screen digital kiosks, Sandberg predicts.

Whatever technology is used still needs to be simple and meet the physical size of the constraints of the kiosk, which according to industry professionals, is mostly decreasing in size or staying put. “When you have kiosks there’s not a lot of room for storage. We have to think outside the box,” Kee says. “We can have fabric with an environment and do projections off the fabric. We can do it off metal. There are so many ways to implement hi-tech to give a kiosk a whole different look and the customer a whole different experience.”

Technology is especially making a huge difference in food kiosks where the introduction of the convection oven meant that even common areas could serve pizzas and similar products and that expensive grease traps are being reserved only for more complicated food items.

Portable refrigerator and freezer cases are increasingly lending themselves to seamless merchandising as in Wide Angle Marketing’s kiosk for Baked by Melissa. The islands in the middle of the kiosk are refrigerators that house the cupcakes.

The rise of technology has also manifested itself in the growing improvements in vending machine kiosks which sell everything from shoes to ice cream, Larson points out.

The long game

Whatever the technology, the material, or the lighting for kiosks, at the end of the day, they have to be functional while attracting customers. “The tricky thing is that no matter how beautiful a kiosk is or how great the design is, if it doesn’t function, it can’t be leased and then it’s not going to make it,” Sandberg says.

But the right kiosk with the right look and at the right budget can work wonders for specialty retail sales and all the trends in the field point toward a whole host of eye-catching designs and special technology effects. And that’s precisely the game plan of kiosk manufacturers, Sandberg says.

“The common area is the doorstep to the whole mall. When you design great kiosks, you freshen up the whole mall. That’s what’s going to bring your traffic. If we can make the mall an exciting place to visit beginning with the kiosks in the common area, it’s a win-win for everybody.”