Untouchable virtual barmaid fills service gaps

But her future could be in retailing rather than hospitality

Natasha the ‘virtual’ barmaid is one of a kind, but she has sporty sister called Emma.

Just outside Nelson at the upmarket Monaco Resort, Natasha serves guests drinks from the hotel bar and even gives some chatter, in addition to weather forecasts and local tourist information.

Emma, meanwhile, has worked in the Nelson R&R sports outlet, running a store customer loyalty programme, and she too can talk about the weather.

While Natasha is having a short break while the Monaco Resort is refurbished, and Emma has finished her trial at R&R Sports, the pair, created by Stoke-based SHE Technology, represent a new face in retailing.

SHE Technology stands for Systems for Human Engagement. Company founder and operator Matthew Dodd says making retail systems more animated boosts their acceptance and improves sales and customer loyalty — claims backed by the operators of Natasha and Emma.

With Natasha, hotel guests using their roomcard can gain entry to the bar fridge and scan an item, say a bottle of beer and, as in Cheers, she even knows your name.

The cost is charged back to your room account since Natasha is integrated with the hotel’s Property Management System. Hidden cameras ensure honesty.

Like any good barmaid, Natasha also has a reply for anyone who gets fresh. If you touch her, she will say “Please leave me alone”, “Please stop touching me,” “Don’t touch what you cannot afford” and “Sorry, I’m just for looking at”.

Monaco Resort duty manager Helen Saville (pictured above) says “guests love Natasha and she’s great fun”.

“If she wasn’t here, we wouldn’t have this bar area. She’s very much a novelty and she gives guests extra service,” Helen says.

Natasha was developed locally three years ago by Dodd with resort developer Mike Jepp as “a laugh” and so Monaco Resort could offer 24-hour bar service without needing staff.

However, bar workers need not worry about any potential threat to their jobs. Matthew has taken Natasha off the market, as he believes retailing rather than hospitality offers better potential, which is how the equally-unique Emma arrived.

Earlier this year, Emma, the “SHE Retail Engine”, spent four months in R&R Sports Nelson, running a customer rewards programme via the store’s point of sale system, and gave weather and other local information.

“She was excellent, a good system,” says store manager Zane Kennedy.

“I feel she boosted trade and people still ask if we still have the system. The customers loved her and she was easy to interact with.”

However, R&R Sports felt Emma was too expensive for the whole chain of eight stores and is working on its own loyalty system.

Undeterred, however, citing success from Emma’s RFID customer card system and guerrilla survey technology, SHE Technology is working on follow-up products.

Dodd claims “executive level discussions” with two major retailers for a similar system, with advertising and customer directions a greater focus. This follows trials of simpler self-service loyalty programmes at a couple of Nelson VideoEzy outlets.

“Stores typically display advertising from LCD screens, but that is pushing content to customers. We say that should be pull advertising with the customer in control,” he explains.

Such interaction with customers gives retailers better information on who is entering stores, so they can better tailor their offerings.

Thus, bricks and mortar retailers can learn as much about their customers as online traders, he says.

Systems for Human Engagement, whose “core” technology has a patent pending in the US, also lets stores use digital media for “below the line” advertising aimed at individual customers.

However, Dodd adds he needs joint-venture funding with a retailer to help commercialise these products, which will involve making a new “personality” for each retailer.

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