Sony Corp’s move to use automated vending technology to sell high-end goods such as MP3 and CD players, digital cameras, batteries, headphones, DVD and UMD videos, is an endorsement of the newest retail concept.

Three automated stores are to launch this week in the US cities of Atlanta, Boulder and Santa Rosa, Calif, on the basis that consumer familiarity with online shopping will promote sales at the payment card-enabled, self-service machines. By end-2006, Sony expects to operate 10 automated stores at malls, airports and grocery stores across the US, believing that this approach is more cost-effective than opening new online or physical stores.

Product and pricing information are managed over Internet networks, and if a customer swipes a credit card but omits to retrieve their purchase from the machine’s tray, the tray will lock after a pre-set time. In the event of any returns, the product can be shipped back to Zoom Systems, turnkey service provider for the machines, using an address on the purchase receipt. Sony’s automated retail tests will be evaluated on factors such as the ability to increase sales without cannibalizing the business of local retailers, and if mass deployments occur, Sony may give purchasers of MP3 players the option of downloading Sony music from the vending kiosk via a USB input.

Sony’s automated stores are seen as an attempt to gain first-mover advantage in consumer acceptance of kiosk-based purchasing, which resembles online shopping and minimizes product shrinkage. Essentially, consumers are becoming accustomed to using their credit or debit card for unattended purchases, at an online storefront for instance, and this familiarity will shift to purchases at retail kiosks. Apart from offering consumers immediate gratification, the kiosks also allow Sony to extend its brand to new retail locations and to automatically track sales and replenishment by means of in-built reporting systems that also show the most popular products purchased.