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Published May 10, 2011

Emboldened by shoppers warming up to more job-killing self-service automation inside stores, marketers are eager to add more routine health monitoring to the grocery store.


Next to the blood pressure machine in three Sweetbay Supermarket pharmacies, shoppers also can try a free self-service vision test that tells them if they should see an eye doctor.

"I figured this vision machine would just gather dust," said Erica Wilson, a pharmacy tech at the Ruskin Sweetbay. "But 10 to 15 people are using it every day."

Atlanta-based Solo Health is about to morph its EyeSite kiosk test into the next generation of self-service blood pressure monitors. Many of the first 500 Solo Health Stations will appear in Tampa Bay grocery stores by year's end. This new multitasker will check blood pressure, measure body mass index, perform visual acuity exams and list prevention medical tips to those who key in their health profile.

It shouldn't be any surprise: Consumers have learned to rely on faceless ATMs to handle their cash, check in at airports and pump their own gas. More recently self-serve kiosks like $1-a-night Redbox DVD rentals accelerated the collapse of Blockbuster. Today, 40 percent of shoppers head for the self-service checkout lane even though it saves them no time.

"Self-service has become ubiquitous partly because people think it puts them in control," said Lee Holman, lead analyst with IHL Consulting Group, which tracks retailer technology spending. "The only population segment that objects to it is working mothers with young kids. They regard cashier checkout as one of their few down times."

Self-service dispensers are changing today's store experience in ways unthinkable a decade ago. Macy's sells pricey iPods from them. A self-serve computer screen at CVS maps your feet to tell you which of 14 Dr. Scholl's orthotic inserts fits best. A vending machine in WestShore Plaza filled with Proactiv skin care products does as much business as most staffed kiosk vendors. A typical mall today generates $1 million from soda vending machines, as much business as a Victoria's Secret.

Solo Health, armed with a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and backed financially by Coinstar, the owners of Redbox and self-serve change-counting machines, envisions a connected network of multitasking Solo Health Stations.

Stores will pay some rent. Health care product makers will pay for the kiosk to hand coupons to patients they know need their products. And insurance companies may pay and offer premium discounts to patients with chronic conditions that can be monitored on shopping trips.

"There is a supermarket within 5 miles of 92 percent of the U.S. population, so kiosks are a great entry point for health care," said Bart Foster, Solo Health chief executive.

Only a fifth of the 50 people a day who use the average grocery store blood pressure machine have been testing their vision.

"But it's exceeded our expectations as an added free service," said John Turner, business development director for Sweetbay.

Among the tested, more than half fail either the near- or far-sighted test. Half have not had a vision test in more than two years, and a quarter have never had one.

The Center for Sight, a Sarasota doctor practice that advertises and gets bookings direct from EyeSite, credits it for seven new patients a week.

One reason creating a vision test took priority: It has been a technical roadblock to automating driver's license renewals. One day, a kiosk could use facial recognition techniques to match a license photo on file with the new one. Flunking the vision test would require followup with a human.

"Would you rather renew your license at a kiosk while grocery shopping," Foster asked, "or after a two-hour wait at a license bureau?"

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.