Of course, the New York Times article that discusses Sony's plans says calling these "vending machines" is a no-no; Sony refers to this type of customer experience as "automated retail" and, even more futuristically, "robotic stores."
According to The New York Times, Sony is rolling out the experiment in three malls in the U.S., in Atlanta, Boulder, Colo., and Santa Rosa, Calif. Within the year, Sony plans 10 such robotic stores in malls, airports, and grocery stores.
Currently, Sony's kiosks will contain cameras and batteries, but one can imagine the sky's the limit when it comes to what Sony might try to provide for impulse shoppers. Flash memory seems like a no-brainer, and of course it's clear that MP3 players (with downloads from its Sony Connect store) or chapters for its Sony Reader could be easily distributed in this manner. And of course, there are always more old-fashioned choices like CDs or DVDs that people certainly might buy on impulse.
It does bring to mind the best of both retail worlds -- quickly swiping a credit or debit card yields instant gratification when the product is spit out immediately. Sony will be able to monitor sales since the machines will be hooked up to an Internet connection.
The article brought up what seems like an obvious point: Such a kiosk is a much cheaper alternative to opening more full Sony Style stores in malls. Indeed, Sony Style stores compete with other specialty electronics retailers you might find in a mall, like Apple
On the other hand, such kiosks have some obvious setbacks. Although instant gratification is often nice, is a camera or an MP3 player really an impulse buy that lends itself to being doled out by a robot? And as long as consumers are in the mall in the first place instead of online, wouldn't they be more likely to shop different stores to actually talk to salespeople and examine different items and different brands before they make the purchase?
I haven't often lauded Sony for doing things ahead of the herd, but I have to admit the kiosk idea is an interesting one indeed, and I for one am looking forward to hearing how the experiment progresses. However, as fascinating as a "robotic store" might be (and again, it sounds perfect for small components that go with electronic devices), I think that when it comes to big-ticket electronics, the physical mall and e-commerce aren't likely to be hybridized in this particular way anytime soon.
Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.