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The ViaTouch machine has sensors built into the shelf that authorize payment to the customer’s account. Image courtesy of ViaTouch.

Automated retail technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, with new companies using artificial intelligence to support versatile payment options, digital signage and management software with advanced analytics.

Tom Murn, a longtime pioneer of vending and self-serve technology, has launched a company, ViaTouch Inc., with the goal of disrupting the consumer goods distribution industry using artificial intelligence and other new technologies. He claims his new technology, which debuts this month, has application for brick-and-mortar retail and is capable of taking on Amazon Go in automated retailing.

Murn is no stranger to technology innovation. His refreshment services company, the Answer Group, based in Farmingdale, New York, was among the first in the nation to deploy remote machine monitoring, cashless payment readers and guaranteed product delivery sensors in vending equipment.

ViaTouch is spearheading technology that extends beyond vending and micro markets to include brick and mortar retail, explains Murn. While ViaTouch is building a new generation of self-service merchandisers, the Intelliwall technology inside the machines has application in the much larger world of brick-and-mortar retail.

In launching ViaTouch, Murn has tapped a team of kiosk and vending professionals with backgrounds in electrical and mechanical architecture, system design, hardware and software. He claims the company holds numerous technology patents with more on the way.

The Intelliwall software, known generically as “multi-sensor checkout” technology, enables consumers to purchase products from a shelf without having to swipe a payment card or open a mobile wallet. Instead, sensors built into the shelf authorize payment to the customer’s account – be it a credit, debit or stored value account.

A retail management system

Murn describes the software as a retail management system.

“On many fronts, it’s taking us into auto retail technology… we’re leapfrogging the industry,” he said.

The software will authorize purchases and track product for fully automated brick and mortar stores, a concept Amazon is exploring with its Amazon Go stores.

When a customer removes a product from a shelf, sensors record the action and bill the customer’s account. Amazon Go cameras and sensors track what customers take from the store. The Amazon technology also relies on video streaming and computer vision algorithms to process images in real time.

Murn claims his ViaTouch system differs from Amazon Go in having a non-invasive patron profile that securely identifies all of its registered users and pre-authorizes them just prior to their shopping on the ViaTouch system.

Noting that Amazon recently announced it is delaying its first public Amazon Go stores due to problems tracking more than 20 people in the store at one time, Murn said his ViaTouch servers are ready to cover busy retail environments.

“I think a lot of companies are touching the space,” Murn said. “I don’t think they’re where we’re at today.”

Cash acceptance could be added to the system, he said, but he believes cashless is retailing’s future. “It (cash) is an antiquated way of currency,” he said. “There is a purpose for cash, but we don’t believe it’s in our industry.”

“When you have Apple Pay in your phone or a credit card in your wallet, why would you want to reduce it to the security or dangers of carrying cash?” Murn asked. “You lose the tracking of your purchases, you lose so many things you gain by accepting technology.”

New vending machines

ViaTouch is introducing vending machines equipped with its new technology that accepts credit card, mobile and biometric thumb print payments. The system’s software learns customers’ product preferences and interacts with them audibly.

A digital screen invites the first-time user to select a form of payment — credit card, mobile or biometric thumb print. Once payment is authorized, the customer can open the door of the machine and remove the products from the shelves.

There is no need for the customer to press a button as there is with traditional vending machines. There are no spirals, coils or dividers in the machine’s shelves.

“We have a lot more flexibility in utilizing our 3D space in the system,” said James Winsor, CTO and director of IoT for ViaTouch. “You can adjust (for different size products) without changing much of the shelves. In the past, you had to pull out the shelf and adjust it up or down.” There are “pushers” that move product to the front of the shelf once other products are removed.

“It does not drop the product,” Murn said. “It’s a device designed to let you look at something, record your buying habits, and then cater sales to you specifically.”

“It’s a kiosk vending system,” noted Winsor. “You can merchandise a variety of different products, whether they’re traditional vending products like chips and snacks, to micro market type products such as head phones, batteries, items that retailers need to protect from theft.”

The machine invites users to sign up for a loyalty app that stores their payment history. Over time, the customer gains loyalty rewards based on their purchases.

The inventory management system allows the operator to monitor the machines’ inventory remotely, in real time.

Murn is testing different machine prototypes in the field at 37 locations.

Results promising

The test locations — both break rooms and public access sites — are experiencing a 60 percent sales lift without any merchandising, he said. With merchandising, the lift has been as high a 300 percent.

Murn did not want to reveal all the factors behind the sales lift. Two he mentioned include improved ease of use and more creative marketing.

Some units have been delivered to Fortune 500 companies that are operating them in-house. This is an arrangement known in the vending industry as “self op,” where the machines are serviced in-house rather than by an outside service provider. These companies are mostly managing food and gifts for employees, customers and, depending on the location, the public.

The ViaTouch software can be integrated with existing micro market and vending management software.

ViaTouch shares production space with Murn’s brother John Murn’s company, Accelerated Retail Technologies, in Corona, California. Winsor oversees the technology team for that company as well.

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