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Micro-markets Promise Macro Impact

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June 01, 2012
Michael L. Kasavana, Ph.D., NCE, CHTP - kasavana@msu.edu

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One of the fastest growing industry trends is not even considered a mainstream hospitality offering. Best of all, technological advancements are credited with enabling the successful latent development of the micro-market concept. Micro-markets, also termed self-checkout centers and at-work retail units, offer convenience, speed and product selection not usually available at hospitality locations. Basically, a micro-market strategically places an array of snacks, meals and refreshment services in a hotel pantry setting for guests and/or breakroom for employees. The concept, which often replaces auxiliary foodservice operations as well as vending machines, has proven extremely popular in hospitality business settings.

Technically, a micro-market (MM) is an unattended point of sale designed to cater to the needs of its clientele; whether that be hotel guests or employees. Originally launched in 2005 by Freedom Shopping, the micro-market concept has only recently gained traction as operators discovered the inherent advantages of using bar codes for product tracking (UPC and private-label codes) as opposed to RFID tagging. While the initial Freedom Shopping concept possessed many attractive features, the need to procure and attach an RFID tag to individual products restricted its business appeal. Although partially attributable to flexibility in item monitoring, the ability to configure a market as a remotely controlled physical environment, without staffing, has been well received by the historically labor-intensive hospitality industry. The adaption of lead-through touch-screen processing, image scanning and signal receptivity, voice commands and visual clues, and the array of settlement options renders the MM application a highly satisfying, and profitable shopping experience.

Micro-market Concept
By comparison, a convenience store or snack food vending machine typically contains a limited array of packaged or fresh quality products. A micro-market can offer hundreds of delicious, fresh items displayed on open shelves and inside energy-efficient coolers and freezers. Often exceeding 300 facings, the micro-market is replacing hotel lobby pantries, gift shops, breakfast bars and snack food vending machines. Products sold in a micro-market often include those with traditional packaging challenges (large or bulky), strained wholesomeness (fresh deli salads and sandwiches), and high-demand replenishment (insufficient inventory) that impact the effectiveness of alternate distribution formats. Additionally, items sold in a micro-market can be handled and reviewed by the shopper, enabling pre-purchase consideration of calorie and nutritional information and product expiration date, as well as allowing a hands-on evaluation of product size and weight. Once shopping is complete, the shopper self-scans selected products and applies an acceptable method of payment. In most cases, transaction settlement can be accomplished by cash, charge, prepayment and other media. The technology involved in the micro-market involves advanced retail modeling that may represent profitability to the host hospitality business.

Guest Offerings
Hotel guests at many properties are presented with three options for snacks and refreshments: lobby pantry shelves, gift shop racks and hallway vending machines. Guest offerings tend to be limited in choice, under stocked in quantity, and may lack promotional positioning. The hotel pantry may be located adjacent to the front desk, thereby allowing staff to manage its operation. A gift shop typically is staffed but open only part of the day, limiting guest access and revenue potential. Vending machines usually allow guests a limited variety of choices and payment options. A micro-market can replace these alternatives and provide a secure, convenient and wide selection of products. For hotel guests, micro-market settlement options may include hotel room key, bank card, mobile payment media and cash acceptance. From a host property perspective, a micro-market relies on self-service kiosks and surveillance equipment to deter theft and ensure proper payment. Micro-markets rely on technology designated specifically for use in retail stores. The idea is to provide a more healthy and substantial food and drink menu in addition to the usual chips, candy and soda.

Breakroom Operations
The installation of a micro-market has been described as a mini-convenience store that can be placed inside an employee breakroom. A major advantage of providing a market in the breakroom is that it contributes to keeping employees on the premises, thereby contributing to improved productivity. Hundreds of fresh and delicious choices can be customized to the workplace including wellness program items and healthy, low-fat options. A micro-market implementation results in employees being able to choose among a wide variety of products followed by a self-checkout procedure. A major concern for hospitality management has always been encouraging staff to remain on premises during breaks to improve productivity as well as to be available in case of unforeseen events, emergencies or crisis situations. Unlike vending machines, micro-markets enable odd-even pricing, and application and collection of sales tax and bottle deposits as well as other considerations, similar to a convenience store. In addition, micro-market suppliers can offer software supporting frequent shopper programs as well as incentive programs tied to company wellness initiatives. The micro-market format allows the breakroom to offer healthy and nutritious food options with 24/7 convenience, and can track usage, preferences and other valuable shopper data.

Vending Machine to Micro-market
The reason a discussion of micro-markets involves comparative analysis with vending machine operations is that historically it has been the vending operator who supports the concept of self-checkout. Since a vending operator may already have presence at the property, as well as a relationship with management, it has been a reasonable business proposition to consider vending machine replacement with an micro-market where appropriate.

For more than 50 years, the vending industry has been in the forefront of workplace automation and has familiarized the public with self-service equipment that delivers product for payment. The strategic placement of vending machines in guest accessible areas and employee only areas is usually standard procedure. Vending operators have also developed and refined warehousing and route management systems that facilitate more efficient replenishment. Although rare, vending machines may experience delivery problems (product fails to dispense), coin or currency acceptance (jams or exact change requirements), and other conditions likely to render the machine in need of technical service to restore operations. Despite technical advances in machine design and telemetry connectivity, the evolution of micro-markets is rapidly replacing vending machines to serve transient guests (lobby area) and repeat patrons (breakroom area). When purchasing multiple items from a vending machine a repetitive series of purchases is required for each item, but a micro-market enables the purchase of multiple items with a single, aggregated payment.

The dimensions of a standard vending machine are equivalent to the size of a household refrigerator. A bank of vending machines could be envisioned as four refrigerators placed side by side, and thereby occupying a 12-foot long wall. A snack food vendor features about 45 items, while a cold or hot beverage machine provides significantly fewer choices. Taking this same space and replacing the four machines with the shelving, cabinets and a checkout terminal of an open-air market multiplies the number of offerings while providing an array of payment options. The five criteria typically referenced when evaluating the transition from vending machine to micro-market are product selection, ease of use, reliability, customer/employee response and overall satisfaction (exhibit one). Exhibit two contains a financial comparison of vending machines and micro-market operations, as reported by Avanti Markets.

Compared to the vending machines a micro-market replaces, sales have been found to double, with food items having the largest increased revenue (up to 25 percent of the mix in a micro-market compared to 7 percent in vending). Most industry trade publications note that average profit in the traditional vending model is 1.15 percent, compared with 17 percent with a micro-market. It is not uncommon to find sales increases of 50 percent to 100 percent, with incremental revenue increases derived from higher prices of 5 percent to 15 percent higher prices. Additionally, a micro-market can more easily collect sales tax and bottle deposits as compared to a vending machine operation. It is also important to note that micro-markets have been shown to require reduced servicing along with energy-saving advantages over vending machines. While a vending operator often pays a percentage of machine revenue to the site management in the form of a commission, a micro-market operator may negotiate on a different basis depending on which entity buys and installs the racks, coolers, payment device and other necessary component parts required to create a secured environment with self-checkout equipment.

Market Capacity
Research indicates that self-serve retail outlets perform equally well for guests and employees regardless of whether they are classified as blue or white-collar clientele since the product mix can be tailored to the placement demographics (from hotel lobbies to break room areas). The main factor in location selection is a closed, controlled area. In other words, when most consumers are known to the market host (employees) or are strategically in view of a staffed location (hotel guests) with limited public access, the market’s surveillance cameras are sufficient to provide a secured environment. Micro-market suppliers typically cite the need to serve 100 or more patrons per day as an average break-even point. Most industry practitioners estimate there will be 7,000 micro-markets in operation by the second half of 2014, with a total market capacity projected at 50,000 units. Currently, self-checkout locations average $40,000 in annual revenues.

Micro-market Technology
Normally a cohesive micro-market layout will include shelves, coolers and freezers customized to fit available space. As a result, the basic system requirements for a micro-market include electrical power and Internet connectivity.  The operator can choose to tag each item with a custom coding (RFID) or rely on reading UPC bar codes. Additional decisions need to be made in terms of cash acceptance and alternate methods of settlement including credit and debit cards, pre-paid cards, employee ID and payroll-direct application. Since a micro-market is operated in a secured, closed location for a known group of guests or employees, there is also a need for surveillance equipment and PCI-compliant point-of-sale processing.

Cash Acceptance
The decision to accept coin and currency will necessitate a coin mechanism device (validity check) and bill validator. The coin acceptor may rely on a coin management algorithm to ensure a sufficient stock of coins for paying change while the currency acceptor may incorporate a bill recycler feature that enables paying change back with bills, as appropriate. In any case, the acceptance of cash and the cost and accountability associated with handling cash payments often encourage a micro-market operator to function as a cashless business.

Cashless Operations
A cashless micro-market can incorporate both closed-loop and open-loop payments. A closed-loop system includes prepaid debit cards, gift cards, branded stored value cards, employee ID cards and payroll-direct transactions, as no external entity is involved in the reconciliation of the payment. Closed-loop cards do not require external approval, processing or connectivity, and thereby promote shopping loyalty as the cards have a limited negotiability (they are only acceptable at designated POS locations). An open-loop system involves an outside processing agency for transaction authorization and settlement. The major card associations (Visa, Master Card, American Express and Discover) are part of an open-loop system. Since interchange and processing fees have a variable component, the larger the average spend, the lower the relative cost of accepting open-loop media.

Some micro-market operators employ both open and closed-loop systems through the installation of a reload station or direct deposit terminal. The shopper can elect to place monetary value onto a gift card, for example, by charging the transaction to a Visa debit card at a reload station. This is an example of the use of an open loop transaction as it involves settlement through an outside entity (Visa). But when the consumer pays for items at the micro-market using the gift card, the purchase is considered a closed-loop transaction as there is no involvement of an outside entity in that exchange. In addition to installing a reload station, many suppliers also provide for online loading, balance information and spend monitoring. At least one micro-market provider enables market shoppers to redeem reward points online as well as on the premises. Another key advantage of a branded and closed-loop card is that it can serve as a gift card, guest promotion, special occasion celebration and employee recognition prize.

Coding and Tagging
Each item for sale is assigned a unique RFID code that is recorded on a tag and attached to the item. Each inexpensive tag (estimated at less than 13 cents each) consists of a low-level antenna and circuit board. RFID tags contain a great deal of information, such as price, expiration date, inventory code, location, product information, taxable status, deposit and security alert. The tag is recognized and read by an RFID reader in the checkout terminal. Tag data is processed by the retail application of the market software. Once the payment transaction has been processed, the security on the tag is deactivated. Since tagged items are read based on transmitted signal, not by individual product scan, the speed of settlement can be less than a few seconds. RFID security alerts can be sensed by entry/exit gates and provide an additional level of scrutiny beyond just surveillance cameras. Should a consumer exit the market without paying for an item, the security gate system will detect the theft, log the event, and generate an email notification detailing the time, date and product description for management. Most systems also include security cameras that stand ready to record 24 hours a day based on motion detection. Bar coding is a slower recognition process than RFID tagging as it requires the proper positioning of each item individually so that its code can be read correctly.

The kiosk hardware is comprised of industry standard components, offering high reliability, familiarity and serviceability. While most micro-markets rely on touch-screen PC hardware, an iPad® can also be used. An industry standard kiosk base has a small footprint (less than two feet of floor space), an AC plug and a CAT-5 connector for real-time reporting and open-loop (bankcard) processing. The micro-market supplier may also employ a virtual private network and associated website for data synchronization, alert notification and report distribution purposes.

Micro-market suppliers often make placing a price on each item optional as prices can be discovered through a scan of the desired product at the checkout terminal. Should a shopper want to know an item’s price, the scanner will quickly return it. This enables more price flexibility and provides a simplistic means for price adjustments as appropriate. Micro-markets can be designed with more than one payment terminal or kiosk to enable more rapid settlement and more efficient traffic flow, and when not in use, the screen can be used as a digital media platform (e.g., advertisements, announcements and promotions).

Micro-market providers focus on the ability to know the inventory levels of each stock keeping unit (SKU) offered for sale in the marketplace. This provides a basis for sales analysis, replenishment planning and revenue auditing. Additionally, the retail software of the market enables management to be aware of those items about to stock out in advance of actual empty conditions. Some systems rely on remote site monitoring to  link to an inventory picking system that enables the market supplier to pre-pack needed items, by location, prior to departing a warehouse with product replenishment supplies.

A micro-market will have a built-in set of reports that captures real-time inventory and sales data as well as day part and aggregated reporting formats. Most micro-market suppliers enable a Web-based inventory management system dedicated to facilitating replenishments and creating new product records, as well as providing a basis for out-of-stock reporting. Because the video surveillance network often is linked to point-of-sale transactions, there is an opportunity for consumer analytics based on gender, age, time of day and product purchases.

Payment Options
It is important to note that micro-markets allow host sites to incorporate the market’s brand, host firm brand or an alternate brand of choice for labeling closed-loop (internal) prepaid stored value payment media. Most micro-market suppliers enable acceptance of the following payment media: branded market card (private prepaid card), proprietary business or campus card, employee badge, hotel guestroom key, coin and currency, credit card, debit card, payroll deduction and biometric recognition. In addition, a micro-market purchase rewards program can incentivize shoppers to become loyal patrons of the unattended point-of-sale location by awarding points for dollars spent regardless of which payment option is selected.

Theft detection and deterrent are two important concerns for an unattended retail market. Micro-markets typically include a mandatory 24/7 security system that must be installed at each market location. Since the micro-market is installed in a closed location (i.e., reasonably secure facility outside a heavily trafficked area), surveillance cameras suffice as monitored protection. A quality security system should function in synchronization with a checkout kiosk to coordinate transactions and time capture video. Installing closed-circuit cameras along with notification signage can help maintain minimal theft. Typically, the micro-market supplier assumes responsibility for the security of the operation.

Recorded footage can also be auto-programmed to integrate with intelligent software capable of generating an email notification (with select video clips) showing an individual committing theft of fraud at the point of purchase. A few micro-market providers have designed an upload link for clips that involve non-payment or deviant behavior to an online video account for rapid access and management viewing. Additionally, the market supplier may provide location management with the ability to view select video via a smartphone or alternate portable device.

Shrinkage Rates
Micro-market shrinkage rates are estimated to range between 1 percent and 2 percent with an industry average estimated at 1.5 percent. The use of micro-market telemetry allows an operator to maintain stringent control over market products since inventory quantities are carefully monitored and transactions are correlated through reporting software. Security camera video serves to assist in the identification of systemic weaknesses as suspicious patrons can be marked for concern. An effective industry practice includes placing a video monitor inside the market perimeter to allow customers to view the shopping area, including themselves, on the store monitors. This can be a powerful deterrent to criminal activity.

PCI Compliance
Since micro-markets accept open-loop (bank) payments, there is concern that the transaction payment technology is payment card industry (PCI) compliant. As a consequence of installing a micro-market business operation, the PCI level of attainment of the micro-market becomes the PCI level of the installation. A PCI certification letter is often included in the micro-market agreement.

A major benefit of micro-markets is the number and types of products offered without constraint of limited pantry space or vending machine spirals. In addition to oversized racks, spacious coolers and energy-efficient freezers, there is room for an open market table and specialty display cases. Many micro-market consumers purchase products for consumption off the premises thereby, extending sales beyond traditional day parts.

Given that vending machine revenues have significantly declined in recent years, and product manufacturers are somewhat reticent to provide new products to that channel, the micro-market represents an opportunity for creating an innovative alternative to satisfy hotel guests and employees alike. Given the increasing implementation of self-checkout stations in both physical and virtual businesses, there is a new-found comfort level associated with the micro-market format.

Michael Kasavana, PH.D., NCE, CHTP, is a NAMA professor in Hospitality Business for the School of Hospitality Business at the Michigan State University. He can be reached at kasavana@msu.edu.

©2012 Hospitality Upgrade
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The Application of Micro-markets
McVety & Associates recently conducted a survey in the lodging industry to explore the application of micro-markets and the results were quite varied. The company discovered that sundry shops basically provide an additional service for guests and are not really looked at as a potential profit center. So the value of a micro-market in lodging properties is still undetermined, but does have promise for the future. Part of the findings indicate that independent operators are more apt to install a micro-market than major corporate chains based on cost and space allocation.

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