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    Equipment: Self-serve Alcohol Kiosks Set to Roll Out Across Pennsylvania

    Simple Brands units will be in 100 supermarkets across the state by the end of 2010.

    As a successful pilot of his company’s automated, self-serve alcohol kiosks winds down, Simple Brands CEO Jim Lesser is looking forward to a rollout in 100 supermarkets across Pennsylvania by the end of 2010.

    The Conshohocken, Pa.-based company first proposed the concept of what came to be called the Pronto Fine Wine & Good Spirits kiosks to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), which oversees the sale of liquor throughout the commonwealth, about four years ago, Lesser recounted in a recent interview.

    Spurred by Pennsylvanians’ inability to purchase wines and spirits in supermarkets as a result of a state-controlled system that requires legal residents of the Commonwealth to purchase wine and spirits in predominantly stand-alone “state stores,” Lesser’s Simple Brands-owned kiosks are licensed to the PCLB, which in turn leases space for the self-serve units within supermarkets.

    In response to the board’s concerns about the kiosks’ potential to be used by underage or intoxicated consumers, Lesser says his company’s kiosks were the only ones that are “securely able to sell alcohol in the world.” What this means is that the equipment is tied to a call center, so that every time a would-be purchaser inserts a driver’s license into the kiosk [m] which is necessary to validate a purchase [m] the call-in center is alerted and a live operator is able to physically assess whether the person making the purchase is actually the person depicted on the license.

    Additionally, the kiosks feature a proprietary alcohol sensor that’s able to detect a purchaser’s blood alcohol level when breathed into from about a foot away [m] there’s no physical contact with the machine, and thus, no sanitation issues for stores to deal with, Lesser was quick to emphasize.

    Prior to completing the transaction, the kiosk reads the magnetic strip on the inserted license and verifies that the data corresponds with the information on the front of the patron’s ID card. The purchase will only go through once a match has been made.

    The pilot for the kiosk, which holds 700 bottles of 53 of the highest-volume wines as identified at nearby brick-and-mortar state stores, rolled out in late June at a Wegmans store in Harrisburg, Pa., and a Giant Food Store in Mechanicsburg, said Lesser, adding that the response from consumers was “successful beyond our expectation,” attributable to greater shopper ease with self-service technology.

    “Thankfully, self-service has come a long way in the past five or six years,” notes Lesser, citing such developments as the proliferation of self-checkout units in stores for increasing people’s comfort level with such gadgets. By contrast, he adds, when the kiosk idea was first proposed, “self-service was first gaining traction.”

    Another factor in the kiosk’s popularity, Lesser believes, is consumers’ increasing familiarity and comfort with making similar e-commerce transactions. As a result, “the everyday consumer has really embraced this,” says Lesser, noting that the “general wine-buying public” is the target audience of the kiosk, rather than more knowledgeable wine consumers, who would still visit liquor stores to make their selections and purchases. To help buyers in need of guidance, the kiosks provide pairing information and background on the varietals they carry.

    The kiosks were a hit with their target consumers right off the bat, leading to a much faster rate of adoption than Simple Brands anticipated [m] “We thought it would take about six months,” confided Lesser.” No doubt, the speedy adoption rate was helped by the one-stop-shopping convenience aspect, and an average transaction time of just two minutes [m] a time frame few stores could compete with, Lesser noted with some pride.

    As for the argument put forth by some liquor stores in states where wine and spirits aren’t sold in food stores that allowing those establishments to offer such beverages would cannibalize liquor retailers’ sales, Lesser pointed out that the 53 wine varieties carried by the kiosk were a mere drop in the bucket as it were compared with the assortment at a liquor store.

    Now, with a Pennsylvania-wide rollout in the offing, Simple Brands may take the kiosk beyond the borders of the commonwealth. Lesser divulged that the company was in discussion with “numerous” states, both controlled and not, for possible kiosk introductions, and that venues beyond supermarkets could include warehouse clubs and shopping malls.

    The reason for such interest, according to Lesser is quite simple: “It’s a cost-efficient, convenient way to offer wine and spirits,” within any given state’s laws governing the sale of such items in food retailers.

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