By Peter Alcock

Have you ever walked up to a self-service terminal like a parking pay station or self-checkout retail store, and been both puzzled and embarrassed because you don’t know what to do? You’re absolutely not alone! It seems like the more text instructions, or the more icons and pictograms there are, the harder it is to figure out what buttons you’re supposed to press or where you insert or tap your card. The user interface or “UI” is certainly one factor in getting a smooth unattended experience.

The first thing is to make the distinction between a self-service (unattended) kiosk or payment terminal inside a shop, airport or car park, and the new breed of totally unattended convenience stores being pioneered by the likes of Amazon with their Amazon Go stores in the U.S. or Pressbyran in Scandinavia. Unattended convenience stores have multiple challenges to overcome, aside from payments, the main ones being inventory control and the prevention of theft.

These new stores have sophisticated devices that log when items have been taken or returned, backed up by multiple closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, and the operators all use a mobile phone app identifying customers before allowing admission to the store. When customers have finished shopping, the list of items appears on the app and they can simply authorize a payment from their Amazon account or mobile wallet. Once the payment is complete, shoppers simply walk out of the store with their purchases. The system is so sophisticated that it can reliably know when an item has been picked and replaced, picked and hidden on a person, and even picked and hidden in another shopper’s bag. Amazon claims the level of theft is so low as to negate the need for security staff or fraud investigation.

Sweden-based Instant Systems developed a completely unattended convenience store concept for Pressbyran which went live in early 2021. Like Amazon Go stores, it uses a mobile app to authenticate users and tokenize a payment card. The app allows a user into the store through a turnstile and takes payment from the card when they check out before leaving.

Turning to more traditional unattended payment systems, most of us are familiar with self-service checkouts in supermarkets or fuel pumps, so what makes for an excellent customer experience? The first thing is engagement and guidance. If a touchscreen is the primary means of user interaction, the “home” screen should be bright and welcoming, with the choices of actions available clearly displayed. Keep the number of screen-presses to a minimum and avoid unnecessary confirmation steps or “Press to continue” pages. Simplicity is the key. Video help showing how to scan an item or where to insert a card can assist new users, but can quickly become annoying once a customer knows what to do. With less complex devices such as parking pay stations or kiosks, there may not be a necessity for a touchscreen at all and a series of buttons may suffice. Nonetheless, thought has to be given to the layout of the panel of the unit especially if there are multiple functions that a user has to interact within the correct order such as a ticket reader, coin slot, bill acceptor, card reader, contactless reader and printer.

How do you set up payments on a self-service device?

Any business wishing to accept card payment needs to set up a credit card merchant account with a bank processor, through which the transactions will pass. Most major processors offer this facility either directly or  through a network of ISOs  (Independent Sales Organizations).  If the business already has a merchant account for eCommerce or face-to-face retail operations, it should be straightforward to add a further account for unattended transactions. Processors often insist that unattended, retail POS and eCommerce transactions each have their own MID (Merchant Identifier) since the risks and charges differ between the transaction types.

Next, a payment gateway is required, since it’s not possible to connect an unattended device directly to the processor. The payment gateway takes the payment authorisation requests from the unattended terminal and passes those to the bank processor in their specific format. The gateway will have a list of the payment devices — the card reader and PIN pad combination — that they support and have certified with which bank processor. They will also provide software, usually in the form of an SDK (Software Development Kit), that will be integrated into the PC or other computer that is running the kiosk, to interface with the payment device.

Payment device choice

When self-service kiosks started appearing in retail environments a few years ago, many developers were taking standard retail POS terminals, fashioning brackets and mounting them somewhere on the kiosk. This is suboptimal for several reasons; POS terminals are not designed to be used in an unattended setting where cable connections are exposed and liable to tampering or disconnection, they cannot stand up to abuse and security can be compromised. The best approach is to use a terminal device from a major manufacturer that is specifically designed to be integrated into an unattended kiosk. They can mount securely and neatly within the panel, they can withstand hard use, and security is assured.

What about an all-in-one solution?

There are self-service specialist companies that can provide a self-service card terminal, including the card payment processing service for a charge on each payment, and this can offer simplicity especially for small operators. The downside is that costs can be high compared with owning the hardware and managing the relationship with a bank processor, and contract length must be assessed in ROI calculations.

As customer needs around how and where they pay evolve, businesses must consider the latest innovations in payments technology and how these unattended transactions can be catered to better meet customer needs and preferences.


Peter Alcock is Head of Product Marketing at NMI.

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