The Perspective 
Tuesday, 22 August 2006
"Baby boomers are all about being in control. This generation wants to control everything, from the food to the words to the order of the service. And this is one area where consumers feel out of control."
 
Those of us in the self-service industry have heard and read quotes like this several times: consumers want more control over transactions. It's the key principle that drives our industry. So here's a shock, this quote isn't about retail service — it's a quote in a recent New York Times from funeral concierge Mark Duffey, describing consumers' choices to plan their own funerals.
 
It reads exactly like the case for deploying an ordering kiosk: The consumer wants more control. So where are all the casket kiosks?
 
Funerals are a $14 billion annual industry, with a guaranteed two million customers per year. Funerals cost $6,000 on average, and often more than $10,000. It's a healthy industry, with nothing but growth on the horizon.
 
Before accusing me of cold-hearted casket kiosk peddling, this is far from unprecedented. Costco deployed casket kiosks two years ago. According to author John Dicker in "The United States of Wal-Mart," the discount giant also is kicking around the idea of casket sales. Web sites are selling caskets — and suggesting upsells and cross-sells. When users order an Irish Tribute casket from CasketXpress.com, the site entices them to pick up a Claddagh Candle, Irish flag and "Dreams of Ireland" framed poem for the casket top. These kind of automatic cross-sells and upsells are what good transactional kiosks do.
 
And this alleviates another problem: the inherent non-compete atmosphere of a funeral home. Instead of taking one funeral director's (read: one salesman's) advice at a very emotional time, kiosks simplify comparison shopping and can help a family find a better opportunity when money will likely be an enormous concern.
 
If all this is too impersonal, add on a "have the planner contact me" button and the consumers get the human touch, while the vendors get sales leads.
 
The one big problem I see is where to put them.
 
Funeral homes might like kiosks for the same reasons most retailers do. It would allow them to offer more inventory with less showroom space. But such traditional, high-touch businesses are unlikely to want such non-traditional devices. Besides, the casket companies with which morticians have long-standing relationships might get testy about sharing the kiosk with competitors that couldn't fit in the room before.
 
Then there's the Costco model, but I'm not sure how effective it has been and Costco wouldn't tell me. I imagine they might keep their casket sales a little under the radar, given the business's unsettling nature. And it's hard for me to imagine picking up caskets, coffee and copy paper in one trip.
 
So that leads me to this: Progressive middle- and high-end consumers like buying all kinds of things in posh little boutiques these days. So why not set up comfortable lounge-style shops with overstuffed chairs and free lattes in the same strip malls where the Mac stores and Paneras go?
 
Smartly-clad greeters can hand customers (we'll call this demographic the 'to-be-deceased') tablet PCs with kiosk software on which they can browse while they curl up in the cushions. If they have a question, they can ask the greeters. If they want to be left alone, they can retreat to more private areas of the store, or draw curtains at tables.
 
Call me crazy, but the same desire for control that drives all transactional kiosks exists in the funeral industry. And the demand will never falter. Critics laugh at all great ideas, and all of those critics eventually need caskets.
Posted by: Bryan Harris AT 02:17 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  
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