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Towson University and Atrium discuss new autonomous market

Video interview explores the technology, operation, and results of this 24x7 unmanned convenience store

CampusIDNews Staff   ||   May 09, 2024  ||   ,

New technology at the Tiger Express convenience store at Towson University let's students walk in, grab products, and walk out without interacting with a employee or using self-checkout. In this CampusIDNews Chat, we get the lowdown from Myron Esterson, IT Manager, Auxiliary Services at Towson and David McQuillin, Vice President of Sales and Atrium Co-Founder.


I'm Myron Esterson, Towson University and I am Dave McQuillin, Atrium Campus.

Esterson: So Towson students had an issue, they were unable to find late night food options on campus. Most of our places closed down at 9 o'clock, and knowing students, they get munchies at all hours of the night.

We decided we really wanted a store that would be open 24-7, minimal staffing, and we signed a new contract for Dining Services back in July 2023 with Aramark Hospitality as part of the contract. They said, we'll give you a store 24-7, it can fit into your existing location, and the rest of that's history.

Students love it, most of them think that they're stealing product, because they don't realize that when they're scanning and walking in the store, they're actually paying for it at that point.

McQuillin: Atrium was involved in getting the store live by providing a tablet-based solution that allowed the Towson OneCard to be used to authenticate into the store for cardholders.

There was a need to provide the ability to support or to select from two different tenders, a taxable and a non-taxable declining balance, dock dollars and dining dollars. So we built that application in partnership with Towson and Aramark, and it's worked great.

Towson's been a great long-term client of Atrium.

We really started with them with our Atrium Connect product at the time that they had, it was called StudentLink, that was the online account management portal, and then they went out to RFP for a new OneCard. We were privileged to win that, and we have been their OneCard provider ever since.

We've collaborated on a number of enhancements over the years to make the student and admin experience better at Towson and improve the Atrium solution really for all clients. So it was just natural that we would also partner with them on this checkout-free store, which is the first store Atrium has opened in higher ed.

Esterson: Students love it, most of them think that they're stealing product, because they don't realize that when they're actually scanning and walking in the store, they're actually paying for it at that point.

They know they can pick something up off the shelf, walk out, and they go, I think I just stole something, when in reality they haven't.

So they really do love it, they love the fact that they don't have to, they're no long lines, they don't have to talk to cashiers that may or may not have attitude, so they're really happy about that.

The user experience actually starts when they first walk up to the store itself, in order to get in either have to swipe their campus card, or they can swipe a credit card, or if you have admin privileges, there's actually a QR reader that you have a QR code you can get in for maintenance more.

While you walk around the store, there are 31 cameras that are watching you. It creates a virtual shopping cart, but it does not know who you are, so there are no privacy concerns.

So what happens is when the student swipes their campus card into the Android tablet, first thing it does is it goes out to Atrium and says, what are my balance in my two accounts? It comes back, and if there's less than $2 on either account, it's grayed out and will not let you in.

Assuming you do have value, you click the, you press the button and it sends a message to the turnstiles, it'll let you in.

Same with the credit card, you have a $25 credit authorization amount, if that's what you choose, again, it'll send a message to the turnstile and they'll open it and let you in.

While you walk around the store, there are 31 cameras that are watching you, they are tracking your every move. It creates a virtual shopping cart for you, but it does not know who you are. It does not know any information about you, so there are no privacy concerns there.

Pick up the items you want, put down the items you don't want, as soon as you walk out, it will finalize your shopping cart and you will receive, it will bill you at that point and then you will receive a receipt.

If we're comparing year over year, in the past, when the store was open, limited hours, students would really spend most of their time there on Thursday nights, we were on a weekly meal plan, so they would dump most of the meals in the store. We were accepting through the cashiers, credit cards, campus cards, cash, and meal dumps and what we've found since we've migrated over to the new Zippin product, we're only allowing campus cards and credit cards at this point, our sales are considerably higher and we're much happier about that.

There's no cash, there's no meal dumps, so at this point in time, 99% of the work is really following an Aramark, they're responsible for making sure the shelves are stocked properly, they're making sure that the store is clean, my responsibility is making sure that the Atrium tablets are connecting back to Atrium, making sure that students can use their campus cards to get in.

McQuillin: One of the enhancements we've done since the store opened was to make the Atrium tablet fully accessible, so that those with disabilities can have a proper experience when they enter the store, and that was rolled out in early January and is now live at the store.

Esterson:  They plug their headphones into the audio cable that's provided to them, the system actually speaks to them, so it will tell them what their balances are, it will tell them exactly what they have to do when they enter the store.


To view the video, click the image at the top of this page.


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