Company Interview: Star Micronics
KIOSK EUROPE: These days Star Micronics is mainly known as a printer manufacturer, but what background brought the company to where it is now?
STAR MICRONICS: Star was originally a manufacturer of high precision parts and fine mechanics used in clock works, with a strong background in the manufacturing technology used to produce them. The level of high precision engineering know-how gained from this experience is still evident today, as Star actually builds its own CNC tooling machines for the products it manufactures now. The core of the company’s success is rooted in its strong R&D facilities, which are continuously improving all products, and have also made Star one of the prime suppliers of mechatronic parts into the global OEM mobile phone market. As you say, though, Star is mainly known as a leading kiosk and POS printer manufacturer with a global presence. Our so-called European office serves the entire EMEA market, plus special regions like India, with sales and technical support through a network of partners.
KE: So, what would you say are the key factors that put Star Micronics, and its people, ahead in the kiosk builders’ growing choice of printer suppliers?
SM: Star Micronics has a very special relationship with the European kiosk market, which I guess really stems from the fact that we were there from its very humble beginnings and have seen all the development. It all started out when we were involved in a first kiosk trial with a well-known UK retailer 15 years ago and helped them, in particular, by integrating one of the first presenters and so avoiding paper jams in one of the first kiosk projects. Ultimately it was the understanding that the customer experience/psychology (and the potentially disappointing influence of the tangible interface printer/receipt) was, above all technological issues, the key to delivering the right technology. So, if we were able to deliver a satisfactory client experience we knew we would have the cutting edge.
Being involved in the whole kiosk design process also meant we recognised that every single project has its own specific requirements - which we have to cater for. We have answered this challenged with a basic line up of 12 different kiosk printers with a much higher number of OEM mechanisms, which can be modularly interlinked offering a vast number of choices to the kiosk designer. Should this still not be enough we always have the option to develop custom made solutions through our R&D centre.
In the end it comes down to having the right people. Both our head of technology, as well as myself have now, believe it or not, been involved with kiosks for nearly 20 years. It is this experience that is crucial to getting the complexities of kiosk projects right.
KE: What are the key benefits that the latest kiosk printing technology can bring to the kiosk builder, and ultimately the kiosk operator?
SM: Voucher on receipt, Auto Logo as we call it, header and footer by printer command integrated in controller, no expensive software integration – just a simple xml file, which is uploaded to the printer with the regular kiosk and POS batches allowing for cross selling, more graphical elements, vouchers, etc. Basically adding new features without adding to the cost.KE: How do you see the printer manufacturer’s role in the increasingly popular trend towards using kiosks as retail outlets in their own right, actually ‘selling’ products and services?
SM: This to us is one of the major - if not the major - trends we are seeing for kiosking. Ever since the kiosks have started to take payments a whole new world of potential new applications has flung open. With affordable, easy to use marketing-on-receipt technology, every single small retailer can produce his own marketing campaign on the receipt, using his own local market knowledge - which can never be matched by a big corporate headquarters located somewhere else. Additionally, he may sell advertising on his receipts, opening an additional revenue source for his business that will pay for the minimal upfront investment almost immediately.
KE: There is much debate among kiosk builders on the use of dedicated specialist hardware (open frame kiosk printers) or modular plug-in printers. Where does Star Micronics stand on the issue?
SM: It is a standard assumption commonly made, particularly amongst engineering-focused kiosk developers, that dedicated open frame kiosk must be the right solution for them - and subsequently that stand-alone printers are not. In stark contrast to that point of view, we have actually seen many successful projects using stand-alone printers to their very best advantage. Less design-in engineering saves valuable time and trouble in integration issues, which, of course, transfer into cost savings. In case of a system failure, they can be replaced simply by plugging in a new system with a single USB plug. Additionally, as paper reload is always a critical moment in printer operation, some Saturday staff find the sheer sight of an open frame printer enough to believe they will not be able to exchange the paper roll, causing service disruption, etc. Stand-alone printers offer maximum serviceablitity for everyone who needs to interact with them.
KE: What are the applications that you currently see driving growth in the kiosk market?
SM: Mobile phone top up continues to be strong, and the photo kiosk market is developing at lightening speed. Kiosk applications with absolutely undeniable huge benefits - like enormous time savings in airport kiosks are forging ahead, while some other areas, like retail, have a more difficult environment: Kiosks that try to capitalise on impulse buying face a very difficult situation, in that they must get a kiosk nearly 100% intuitively right for almost anyone that would want to use it, which is very hard to achieve. Classic queue-busting order kiosks are a safer route. There are other applications, like mass customization, or simply information, which may be more appropriate on a retail kiosk than the quest for the impulse buy. The tangible benefit to the customer is always the key. We remain skeptical in regards to all multi- functional kiosks, which tend to outstrip the customers; willingness to get acquainted with the system when they want to swiftly complete their transaction.
KE: The kiosk market has typically been seen as fragmented and very project lead. Is there something like an average size for kiosk projects, and is it true to say that even if the huge projects are still the exception, the number and frequency of projects continues to rise?
SM: Oh, yes, very much so. We have seen the number of kiosk projects rise by over 50% over the last two years alone! Kiosks have arrived and will continue to grow steadily. Yes, it is correct that some of the projects are of rather small size, but the total number of projects is rising amazingly and we are seeing also a lot of trials actually being turned into full scale roll outs. All of this obviously means that ever more customers being exposed to kiosk environments, and so become ever more likely to use the kiosks.
KE: With kiosk printer implementations expanding at such a phenomenal rate, are stock and delivery times an issue?
KE: What are typical lead times at the moment?
SM: If we are looking across the whole range of kiosk applications - all markets, all countries - I would be thinking that 12 months is a good estimation of the average project lead time.
KE: Are kiosk builders now designing their terminals with printers in mind, or do you find it’s still the last thing to get squeezed into the box?
SM: Getting in absolutely as early as possible in the design process is key to many good decisions later… All our sales people are engineers, so as soon as they hear about a project they will supply the client with all relevant information and tell them what aspects they need to think about at the design stage.KE: We are seeing printing speed beyond 200mm/s – what is the agenda on that? -faster, faster… or better quality, high quality paper for tangible benefits?
SM: Every project is different and the project requirements rule over most of the criteria you mentioned– with reliability being the condition sine qua non.
KE: Let’s assume we’ve made a good choice of printer, but – as with all other kiosk components – isn’t integration the true issue? – Both on an engineering level and a business level (cost of paper, etc). How do you deal with this? Are the clients left alone after they have bought the hardware?
SM: We will pay attention to smaller projects, as well as to bigger ones. Because of our extensive customization facilities, we are not desperate to sell off the shelf products. We will, wherever necessary, offer customization rather than try and sell a half-fitting solution. We think this creates a very special relationship with the clients when they realize that we are actually listening to them and putting their requirements top of our agenda - even where we could have spent less effort by using standard solutions. Surely the fact that Star as a whole has many other business areas, which are not dependant on the kiosk market, has given us high credibility in this respect.It may sound odd, but there are occasions where it is actually necessary to remind the deployer of a kiosk project that the kiosk itself is nothing special. Your business is special and you must integrate the kiosk to its best use into your business model. The benefit to the business must be there, as well as to the customer who is going to use it. Everything else is only a derivate of this initial layout.
KE: What’s your take on the European kiosk market at the moment? Would you agree that kiosk user acceptance can be distinctively higher in markets with strong/major infrastructure changes, like Eastern Europe, which seem to make consumers more willing to accept and use new technology, more so than their counterparts in more established economies?
SM: Yes, definitely. We see the UK and Germany as probably the most mature kiosk markets in Europe. It is true that the biggest potentials for kiosk projects are in areas of major change. Retailers and other kiosk deployers seem more willing to opt for new ways to communicate with their clients than in the more established markets -with their sometimes razor sharp margins that leave less space for trials and new ways of doing business. Having said that, the sheer size of the mature markets obviously outweighs the aforementioned advantages of the newer ones to a certain degree.
KE: What will the market demand in the future: higher resolution, faster speed, better software? More colours?
SM: Unexperienced clients want everything, experienced clients know there is only one real issue: reliability. But there will still be more and more graphical capabilities enabling more precise and appealing customer feedback.
KE: What about double sided printing, a true innovation or does it present more disadvantages than benefits?
SM: I, personally, never look at the back of a receipt. Sure, technologically it can be done, but all paper manufacturers will need to respecify their products at high costs, that will eventually be passed on to the consumer. Honestly, I don’t see it catching on.
KE: What is Star’s vision for the future? What do you see as the next big thing in kiosk printing?
SM: We are all still too hardware-minded. There are a number of ways of making better, more extensive use of existing technology by using software to a greater extend. Software will allow for more marketing on the receipt, and for controlling and maintaining the printing technology remotely within reasonable budgets and without creating new integration issues.
One thing that has had promising trials in Japan is the two dimensional barcode, which can be scanned by mobile phone cameras from printed receipts, posters, newspaper ads, etc, and automatically take the mobile phone user via WAP onto relevant internet sites with additional information. It is a clever integration of existing technology with new benefits for everyone involved.
Annette Tarlton, Star's Marketing Manager EMEA, has extensive international marketing experience and has continually kept sales ahead of forecast since she joined Star Micronics in 1988.