20 Apr 2021 19:16 IST

A new way to shop in the US: Kiosks

The US will transform itself to look more like Japan to meet the demands of a higher federal minimum wage

In the summer of 1995, as I roamed the streets of Tokyo’s Shinjuku District, the caricature of Japan instilled in me for decades came to life. There were shopping kiosks everywhere. And they dispensed everything imaginable. In contrast, kiosk technology in the US has been rather mundane. Vending machines that dispense soda, candy, and other junk food? Yes, these continue to be ubiquitous outside large big box stores, in employee cafeterias, and highway rest stops. But shopping kiosks of the Japanese kind? Not really.

Well, not until the last few years. The first major switch from human-serviced counters to kiosks came about in grocery stores. Dedicated checkout lanes with self-service kiosks shared valuable real estate with human checkout lanes. Long-time employees stared wearily at the kiosk lanes as foot traffic rapidly moved away from them to self-checkout. Store management responded in kind, expanding kiosk lanes. The neighbourhood Walmart store in Bedford, TX is expected to go kiosk-only.

But just as in a Japanese 7-11 convenience store, there are other kiosks now in operation at an American supermarket.

DVD rentals

DVDs are not in style, having ceded market share to online downloads and streaming years ago. But customers still prize their Blu-Ray players which can play 4K video quality and surround sound. People rarely buy DVDs these days, but renting continues to be an option. When Blockbuster, the last of the large brick-and-mortar stores in the video renting industry, collapsed, kiosk-based DVD rental companies began to enter the market.






Today, Redbox dispenses the latest DVDs at a fraction of the cost of a video-on-demand streaming rental, about $2 per night. And Redbox kiosks are conveniently located outside grocery stores and drugstore chains, inviting customers to rent their favourite movie as they exit the stores. With the Redbox app, customers can search for their favourite movie by kiosk location. Gently-used DVDs are sold at the kiosks for a huge discount over the original retail price.


Like many Indians, Americans still pay for their items in cash but receive coin change in return, an idea that seems like a relic in many countries where the value of the change is so minimal that the bill is rounded down to the nearest whole number. Quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies find comfortable refuge in pant pockets, ladies' purses, and for the more disciplined, shoe boxes at home.

When the volume of coins becomes sizeable, how do you convert them to cash? A cottage industry exists to help Americans do just this. Coin-based businesses, such as convenience stores, car washes, and laundromats, are eager for your coins. You can buy a battery-operated coin sorter, along with designated paper rolls, to help you neatly pack coins into bundles of $2, $5, and $10. Banks accept these coin bundles and instantly credit your account.

But sorting coins takes time, a commodity that is in short supply in an American household. Coinstar kiosks solve your problem easily. Located conveniently in grocery stores, these kiosks accept all of your disparate, mixed change as you dump it into the bowels of the machine from your shoebox. Coinstar sorts the change automatically, and counts it, dispensing cash in bills after deducting a 11.9 per cent fee. Don’t want to pay the 15 per cent? Amazon, which has partnered with Coinstar, offers you the entire cash without any fee if you agree to transfer the cash to your Amazon account as a gift card so that you can buy more from Amazon. The world’s largest retailer thinks about everything.

Minute Key



Until recently, getting a spare key to your home, car, or motorcycle meant a visit to the hardware store. But at Minute Key kiosks, you can get a duplicate key made for $2 while you wait. Just insert your master key into the key slot and pay by credit or debit card. The machine takes a precise image of your key and using a 3-D printer, spits out an identical duplicate key in minutes.









This technology was clearly developed for the environmentally conscious. Suppose you are considering replacing your iPhone or Android tablet with a newer model. What would you do with your current device?

Most people will want to sell their devices. The market for used high-end phones is robust in all parts of the world. Indeed, giant refurbishing companies move huge volumes of product buying and selling used phones.

But for the environmental activist, the used phone market is toxic and defines everything that is wrong with the world. High-end used phones will probably replace clunkers which will make their way into trash heaps. It is better to recycle high-end used phones and take them out of the market completely. The big phone companies would readily agree because the used-phone industry is cannibalising new phone sales.

At an EcoATM machine, you connect your phone to a cable. The machine reads your phone’s system information and checks that all components are working properly. It then gives you a cash offer to buy your phone. I got an offer of $22 for my 128 GB iPhone 6s which I have been using for years. I know that the model is so popular that I can get more for it in the used phone market. So, thank you, EcoATM, you are not for me.







Japan still out-competes the rest of the world in consumer-driven technology including personalised robots and kiosks. But for America to adopt kiosks the way it has done is troubling to the millions of under-skilled people who depend upon low-end service jobs to earn a living wage, even as an open-borders policy invites ever more so unskilled, illegal immigrants.

As liberal American politicians push for a higher federal minimum wage, to $15 an hour, America will likely transform itself in the coming years to look more like Japan, because kiosks cannot unionise and don’t make demands of the American employer. And kiosks nearly always have a 100 per cent customer satisfaction score because they deliver as they are designed to do.