Dawn Dickson presents her self-serve retailing system. Photo courtesy of PopCom.

Dawn Dickson got into self-service retailing in 2011 with a very simple plan: create a vending machine to sell flat shoes for women on the run. But in the course of launching this business, she learned that self-service retailing technology was not sufficiently developed.

She has since taken it upon herself to develop both hardware and software to enable kiosks to dispense consumer products and provide useful data about the customers and the customer traffic.

After starting her business as Solutions Vending International, Dickson began manufacturing vending machines, called Flat Out Of Heels, and placing them in airports. She sold the shoes for $20 and the machine accepted credit cards.

Existing software insufficient

After placing her first machines, she began receiving requests from other businesses that wanted to use the machines to sell their own products. Dickson realized there was a market for self-service retail kiosks, but she also discovered that the software that was available for managing the machines was very limited.

The management software available for vending machines was mainly for managing internal machine functions. Dickson wanted to be able to track customer traffic outside the machines, be able to monitor customer interaction with the machines, and be able to measure how many machine visitors became customers.

“There (was) no software that calculates and measures what’s going on outside of the vending machine,” Dickson told Kiosk Marketplace.

“People would ask me, ‘how are your machines performing?’ and I didn’t know,” she said. “They (available software programs) can only give out data on customer sales. That doesn’t measure how well they’re performing.” Dickson wanted to know how many people walk up to the machine, interact with it and how many make a purchase.

Seeing the need for such software, she refocused her efforts to include developing software in addition to hardware.

To finance development of what she knew would be an extensive undertaking, Dickson began raising funds, eventually participating in two accelerator programs —  Canopy and Techstars — and ultimately raised close to $1 million.

Better software emerges

Dickson’s team developed software, called PopCom, to allow the kiosk operator to understand customer conversion rates, demographic data and traffic patterns.

“We are focused on what customers are doing, conversion rates, the demographic profiles of the customers,” and how they feel while they’re shopping, she said.

“We began to create features that are very similar to popular e-commerce sites like Shopify…and providing those type of metrics for self-service retail,” she said.

To calculate customer conversion rates, she learned the machine needed to have facial recognition. She ended up working with Kairos, which provides facial and sentiment recognition. The facial recognition software also allows customer age verification for regulated products.

All information collected by the kiosk is sent to the cloud. The kiosk operator can then access the data and view reports in real time, including customer demographic data, sales data and inventory. The operator will also be able manage pricing and promotions remotely and be able to run customer relationship management campaigns.

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While Dickson developed the software for her own kiosk, existing kiosks and vending machines can be retrofitted with her software via an API.

Hardware development continues

Meanwhile, she continued working on her own kiosk hardware.

“We’re changing the way vending machines look,” she said. “You don’t see the product as it’s contained within the machine. You see the product on the screen.”

Her machine, called PopShop, will be around six feet tall, containing a cabinet for holding product, and a touchscreen for conducting transactions. The touchscreen will also be able to carry product content information and advertising.

“While the person is shopping, it still will be delivering messages, and ads to attract more people to come to it,” she said.

Dickson believes her solution will allow e-commerce retailers to establish a physical presence where customers can pick up their online orders.

“We’re really helping e-commerce stores to have a physical presence with a smaller footprint,” she said. “Anything you can sell online, you can sell in a vending machine.”

Dickson displayed a prototype of her machine at the recent CES show in Las Vegas, and she expects the commercial model to be ready in May. She currently has six employees and is hiring additional sales and engineering talent.

Companies selling hair extensions, watches, clothing, jewelry, umbrellas and other consumer products have expressed an interest in her machines. There are already seven customers committed and hundreds in the pipeline, she said.

Kiosks still lag other industries

The kiosk industry is growing rapidly but is not truly high tech, she said.

“Touchscreens and credit cards are about as high tech as we’re getting,” Dickson said about the kiosk industry. “But as the retail environment continues to be more tech enabled in the brick-and-mortar setting, as kiosk and vending machine operators and owners, we have to be able to keep up with what the customers demand of us, the kind of technology they want to use in the retail environment.”

Bitcoin enters the mix

Dickson could be one of the first kiosk developers to offer bitcoin acceptance. The PopShop machine will accept credit cards, digital payments, bitcoin and possibly other cryptocurrencies.

Concerning bitcoin, “It’s a currency that people are holding and would like to be able to spend,” she said. “I personally buy and trade cryptocurrency regularly.” Dickson is presently looking for a cryptocurrency processor that will allow the machine to accept bitcoin payments.

The cost of Dickson’s kiosks varies, based on the size of the cabinet for holding product, in addition to two screens and two cameras. The kiosks are fully customizable.

“Customers can sell whatever they want in these machines,” Dickson said. “I’m building the machine for 2030, 2050. I’m looking to the future and trying to anticipate what the trends are going to be.”

Register to hear Dawn Dickson speak at the ICX Summit June 12-14 in Dallas.

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