As the COVID-19 shakeout continues, economists believe the number of the nation’s largest shopping malls will shrink from 1,800 to fewer than 500. At the same time, pandemic-related bankruptcies put such famous retail brands as Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Lane Bryant, Belk and Brooks Brothers, to name a few, into reorganization or out of business.
Amid this worldwide retail disruption, ViaTouch Media, the niche business-to-business vending machine company behind the Vicki unattended retail platform, is emerging stronger and more focused.
“The retail revolution embracing online shopping and mail order delivery, which was well underway before COVID-19 took hold in early 2020, combined with evolving workplace patterns, including less reliance on office buildings, means that ViaTouch Media needed to expand its role and purpose,” said ViaTouch Media founder and chief executive Tom Murn.
“For example, in response to COVID-19,” Murn continued, “ViaTouch had to provide sterilizing and sanitizing technology and consumer-friendly cashless functions. Vicki is a ‘store within a store or point of sale’ and its main dynamic is making the sales presentation of items more exciting with lights, optics and sounds, which capture the customer’s attention far beyond standard venders.”
The UV-C sterilization feature, introduced last year, adds $200 to the machine’s cost, but 95% of the machines sold today include the option.
ViaTouch Media’s Vicki arrived on the scene four years ago as a "smart-shelf" vending system using iris-authentication technology. It was initially designed to complement high-profile retail brands and venues either as a module that could snap into store shelving or as a standalone vending machine. Vicki’s distinguishing feature was a secured door to protect products and allow access; the door unlocks once payment is authorized. This design replaced traditional vending machine mechanisms that use motors and moving parts. The first Vicki was unveiled in November 2017 at The Freedom Tower in New York City.
Recently, Vicki AI-powered machines have been deployed in traditional workplace vending venues. Last year, for example, ViaTouch Media teamed up with cashless payment leader MM Hayes to provide safe, contactless shopping solutions at healthcare locations. And national service giants Compass Group and Sodexo are placing them. Additionally, Vicki is getting a lot of attention in the cannabis vending sector where it’s the platform of choice for Chemesis International Inc., a CBD product distributor.
“The Vicki units at New York Presbyterian Medical Center offered through cashless payment provider MM Hayes became a convenience, on-the-go platform to provide the hospital’s doctors, nurses and staff with quick delivery of items,” Murn said.
Vicki is also the main retail attraction at the Brooklyn Museum. “In a museum or leisure visit site, there is probably not enough business for a staffed café,” Murn explained. “Fresh food, gourmet meals, and beverages along with souvenirs and gifts are all part of what Vicki can present.”
Vicki’s architecture employs "computer vision" technology to create a contactless retail environment. Computer vision is a field of artificial intelligence that trains computers to interpret and understand the visual world. “This is what Vicki does,” Murn said.
Vicki recognizes and authenticates each consumer, learns their preferences and then acts upon them, serving as a virtual clerk. Much like Amazon's digital assistant Alexa, the machine engages with consumers by talking to them. She can conduct surveys at the point of sales, too.
Murn is a former operator. He founded Answer Vending in Farmingdale, NY, one of metropolitan New York's largest operations, which is now a Canteen franchise. He started ViaTouch Media in 2013 with the goal of applying artificial intelligence and other contemporary technologies to improving the consumer goods shopping experience.
Select 7-Eleven convenience stores now merchandise $10 to $50 items through Vicki. “What gets delivered from the warehouse goes into the machine, nothing extra, no shortage, no pilferage,” Murn noted. “By vending items at a steady pace in this range, Vicki can pay for herself in four months.”
Following success with retail brands and as a contactless vending solution during COVID-19, ViaTouch Media believes Vicki is ready for mainstream vending operators. To support a wide variety of products for operators, Vicki’s climate control system can be set to run in ambient or refrigerated modes; a frozen version is in the works.
“Vicki has really stepped up her game,” Murn said. “It offers purchasing analytics, artificial intelligence and facial recognition software, and newer features like Vicki Verify age and facial ID recognition for payment, along with the Vicki Rewards app, where the consumer doesn’t need any credit or access card – the door will simply open.
“In some states, where it is legal, we are pursuing alcohol and cannabis,” he added. “This vending format becomes a whole new area for hotels, restaurants and other hospitality related services. It encapsulates every retail tool today’s vending operator may need.”
To support the app features, machines are outfitted with Vicki Halo, a camera system enabling facial biometric payment with age verification. Customers can sign up through the Vicki Rewards app. “Once you are verified, simply enable ‘face payment’ in the Vicki app and you are all set. No you can walk up to a Vicki, look into the outward facing camera and within seconds the door is opened and you are free to shop,” Murn explained.
The company is working to drive down the machine’s price tag. Murn said the current cost is similar to that of a high-end glassfront merchandiser. The upcoming Vicki version 3.0, which will succeed the present-day 2.5 version, may be even cheaper – as much as 30% less, according to Murn. The new version will be fully customizable.
ViaTouch Media is headquartered in San Diego, CA, and maintains an office outside of New York City. Fiserv, the world’s largest credit card processor, owns 7% of the company. Thomas Eyk, IBM’s former chief technology officer, oversaw the development of the Vicki platform.
To learn how to buy a Vicki machine, contact ViaTouch Media at (866) 942-0804 or email@example.com. To learn more about the platform, visit getVicki.com. To learn more about the Vicki app, go to getVicki.com/getVicki_app.