Retailers Mull the Future of Touchscreens

Extra cleaning can help ease germ worries, and new kiosks are in the works that limit touchpoints. 

June 29, 2020

PHILADELPHIA—Touchscreens not long ago were seen as cutting-edge for everything from ordering sandwiches at c-stores to pinpointing store locations in a shopping mall directory, but COVID-19 concerns have given consumers pause about touching anything. Industry watchers aren’t ready to sound the death knell for kiosks just yet, instead, they see them as one of many options for looking up information, ordering food and checking out, and say more advanced versions are on the way that limit touchpoints.

“There is this underlying emotional, physical reaction now to touching stuff,” Munir Mandviwalla, a Temple University professor of management information systems, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The longer this goes on, the more I think people will be afraid of touching things.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the novel coronavirus spreads primarily through close contact person-to-person. The CDC says “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Touchscreen kiosks can limit customers’ face-to-face and close-contact interactions with other people, Craig Allen Keefner, manager of the Kiosk Manufacturers Association, told the Inquirer. He sees the use of kiosks growing, not shrinking. Shake Shack, for example, is installing ordering kiosks at its restaurants, which traditionally haven’t had drive-thru lanes.

Software firms are developing kiosk systems that can be controlled by voice, biometrics or gestures—like the “hand wave” system Amazon is reportedly exploring. And new touchscreens are in the works that require fewer touches to complete transactions or use QR codes that customers can scan with their smartphones to check out.

Many convenience stores and other retailers are encouraging customers to order items and pay via mobile apps. 7-Eleven, for instance, just announced a contactless way for users of its 7Rewards loyalty program to check out with their phones while shopping in store in certain markets.

Low-tech solutions like highly visible and frequent cleaning of high-touchpoint surfaces also help allay consumers fears about touching screens. A May 2020 national consumer survey conducted for NACS by PSB Insights found that consumers are looking for clean stores—from bathrooms to gas pumps to payment keypads—as they get back to their normal routines. Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at all entrances ranked high on what consumers want to see when visiting a c-store.

Overall, 99% of NACS retailer members responding to a March 2020 NACS Retailer Member survey said they have enhanced their cleaning protocols for high-touch surfaces, with regular cleaning conducted as often as every 30 minutes.

Wawa, for example, is installing disinfecting wipe dispensers near touchscreens and sanitizing surfaces at least hourly, spokesperson Lori Bruce told the Inquirer. Wawa has long used touchscreens to allow customers to customize their foodservice orders. The Pennsylvania c-store chain just added curbside ordering at two New Jersey locations, and is encouraging customers to use its new Wawa Delivers! service through Grubhub, Uber Eats and Doordash.

“Mobile ordering is picking up considerably,” said Alex Baloga, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, a trade group that represents more than 800 supermarket and convenience store operators. Baloga told the Inquirer that stores are encouraging customers to use mobile apps for placing orders and scheduling food delivery.

“Certainly the best kiosk in the world is your mobile phone,” Yum! Brands CEO David Gibbs told Yahoo Finance in March. “It’s a portable kiosk and you can use it wherever you want and nobody else touches it. I think the use of mobile phones for kiosk-type ordering will probably become more prevalent, and perhaps using kiosks in stores will become a little bit less part of the business model.”

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.