High-end brands, choreographed lighting set new robotic shop apart from other vending machines.
A new vending machine from start-up company U*tique takes aim at luxury product buyers, replacing the traditional candy bars and salted peanuts with high-end lotions and beauty products.
"I consistently heard, 'We're busy, we're time-strapped, and the retail experience has become confusing â€¦ we need products brought to us at our moment of need,'" said Mara Segal, the 29-year-old entrepreneur behind U*tique, which currently consists of Segal and three employees.
With a facade that recalls the design aesthetic of 1970s sci-fi cinema, the U*tique shop is a collection of 50 products, backed by shifting colored lights and served up at the press of a touchscreen.
Similar in concept if not in appearance to the successful Zoom Systems automated retail machines, the U*tique device — the first of which was recently deployed at Hollywood luxury retailer Fred Segal, no relation — uses a touchscreen interface to deliver information about each of the 50 products in the machine. When the user pulls up a product on-screen, the wall behind that product lights up and changes color, one of the machine's "choreographed lighting experiences."
"If you shop our interface, you're always guided by light through the experience," Segal said. "If you browse a brand, all of those items get lit up. If you add an item to your cart, that item gets lit up."
The U*tique vision, and its execution
With her drawings and her business plan in place, Segal enlisted the help of one of the self-service industry's major players, Flextronics, when it came time to design and manufacture. Flextronics is a big enough company that it doesn't usually work with three-person startups, but it made an exception once it saw not only the plan but Segal's optimism for it.
"She showed us a rendering of what she wanted to create and passionately shared her perspective on how the kiosk and vending industries were too focused on technology and not focused enough on the view of the brands, retailers and consumers," said Dave Gonsiorowski, general manager of Flextronics. "We likened her vision to how Apple must have viewed the MP3 and cellular markets prior to inventing the iPod and iPhone."
Gonsiorowski, who said the U*tique machine is a "potential game changer," said Segal's personality and drive were a big part of the reason his company got excited about the project.
"Even with the great vision, I have to admit that we were initially concerned about the ability for a small team with a limited budget to take on such a big vision," he said. "Our concerns diminished the more we worked with Mara and her team. We quickly learned that the team was tremendously talented and Mara is relentlessly persistent. She is one of those people who won't accept 'no' for an answer and won't settle for good enough."
Segal wouldn't say much about the business model that will ultimately drive her company. There are certainly a lot of possibilities: sell the machines outright to real estate owners, place the machines and give a portion of the sales to the property, or develop custom-branded machines for bespoke environments.
Citing that she is in discussions with several "multinationals," Segal said she couldn't comment on any of those possibilities. She did say that it would be "easy to envision an iPod in these, or a high-end energy supplement.
"What U*tique will always represent is, 50 must-have products," and those products will vary based on location.
Do customers want luxury products from a vending machine?
For many, the luxury shopping experience is as much about getting pampered by sales staff as it is about the products being purchased. Will the target audience for U*tique want to buy their fancy chocolates and lipstick from a machine?
Dr. Susan Shwarz, assistant vice president with marketing communications firm Oppenheimer & Co., said that the timing is bad for a new luxury play but still thinks U*tique could succeed in places like hotels, airports and resorts. "Time is a luxury, and I know I would do it at least once, for the experience," she said.
Then there is the matter of product assortment. Briana Passo, who buys a small handful of luxury items but buys them regularly, said the unpredictable nature of the assortment would make her more likely to just go into Macy's, for instance, where she knows they will have what she wants. "Also, when I like one company's product, I tend to purchase one or more items," she said. "So I would tend to buy more items from one company than several different items from several different companies."
Marketing consultant Judy Margolis calls the combination of vending and luxury "the very definition of an oxymoron."
"The whole notion reminds me of the bubblegum machines that captivated me as a child, particularly those filled to the brim with clear plastic globes encasing all manner of silly junk," she said.
Even so, the dawn of the ATM saw countless consumers bewildered and put off by the idea of getting their money from a machine rather than a person. Clearly, attitudes have changed, and what once seemed counter-intuitive is now an essential part of life.
"I believe we will see companies like U*tique change the way other companies look at what's important," said Gonsiorowski. "And we will see a new wave of innovation as a result."
James Bickers is the former senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications.