Electronics to go

Elizabeth Rund

In the mall or in the airport, cell phones, iPods and cameras are ready to grab while people are on the move


Credit: Jason Hall

Ready to head out on a date, but don’t have the time or materials to brush your teeth? Buy a pack of mints from a vending machine.

Ready to take a road trip, but forgot your iPod at home? Before heading all the way back to retrieve it, try checking a vending machine.

ZoomSystems founder and Chief Executive Officer Gower Smith came up with the idea for automated retail machines while he was in Australia developing a new system for an office.

Smith created and patented an automated supply cabinet where users could purchase new ink cartridges and deposit used cartridges to be recycled.

Using what he learned in Australia, Smith founded ZoomSystems, which moved to the United States in 2000, and installed the first machine in the Argent Hotel in San Francisco in 2005. Since then, ZoomSystems has installed nearly 350 machines in 28 states, including nine locations in Ohio.

Although the technology and ideas are still relatively new, some students, like freshman ESL technology major Halil Ozel, have seen the machines.

“It was not surprising to see,” Ozel said. “But it was interesting for me.”

“We are seeing tremendous consumer response across the board. Customers are really getting more comfortable with technology on retail,” said Stephanie Bowler, marketing coordinator for ZoomSystems, adding that sales per square foot are typically higher than in the traditional retail setting.

Just like old-fashioned?

Despite all the new technology, these machines function very much like “old-fashioned” vending machines, but with a little more razzle-dazzle.

Each machine covers roughly 40 square feet of floor space and offers a wide variety of quality brand name products from companies such as Apple and Motorola.

The ZoomSystems machine in Eastwood Mall in Niles, Ohio, for example, offers Motorola wireless phones as well as an acne-fighting system that is sold online and on television.

The customer views the product through the glass then on a touch screen, which gives close-up photos and information about the product.

Once the customer has made a selection, the touch screen instructs him or her to swipe a credit or debit card.

A robotic arm then lifts the product and delivers it to a retrieval area.

“Things like ATMs, self check-in at the airport and self check-out at the supermarket have really helped consumers become more comfortable with self-service,” Bowler said. “Automated retail is similar to online shopping, but with instant gratification: The customer holds the control.”

Concerns still exist

As with regular retailers, security is always a concern. Patrons can view the products through shatterproof glass, and each machine is equipped with optical sensors that send an electronic signal to a field technician should anything go wrong.

In addition, the sensors detect when the robotic arm has retrieved the product, placed it in the bin, and when the item is picked, before the credit card is charged.

If the product is unsatisfactory, it can be returned to the home office within 30 days for a full refund.

Although there is security and a refund policy, many say they are still skeptical about the new machine.

Gary Vojtush, freshman middle childhood education major, said he was skeptical of the machines.

“You never really know if it is going to work. What if something happens? Who is going to help you?” he said, adding that he still thinks the idea will catch on.

“I think that this will spread,” he said. “Everyone wants something hi-tech.”

But freshman psychology major Nyla Harris has her doubts.

“I wouldn’t trust a product if it’s from a vending machine,” she said.

For more information on automated retail, visit the ZoomSystems Web site at www.zoomsystems.com.

Contact features correspondent Elizabeth Rund at [email protected].