Fall 2016 Specialty Retail Titan

For two decades American Kiosk Management has been a prominent presence in the mall common area with a compelling suite of products. As national retailers look to test the waters and launch their own specialty retail arm, the ever nimble American Kiosk Management is set to help with a range of services that retailers of all stripes can leverage.

It all started in 1997 with one Metabolife cart. Since then American Kiosk Management, under the able leadership of Linda Johansen-James and Max James, has grown into a specialty retail juggernaut with thousands of retail locations and a global footprint that has left an indelible mark on the industry.

It’s a commonly repeated aphorism that the only constant in retail is change. This has especially been the case with specialty retail. Under her watch, Linda Johansen-James has embraced a variety of concepts and categories: from carts and kiosks branching out to temporary inline stores, pop-ups, sponsorships and more. Yet AKM has thrived and stayed on top by being nimble and diversifying its incredible portfolio of specialty retail products and services. The latest under that umbrella? A management company that offers a wide variety of services including real estate site selection, operations, marketing, IT, finance, HR and more. Through this division—and a whole roster of “products that change lives”—AKM is looking forward to the next chapter of its illustrious history.

Products that change lives


Max James, Executive Chairman of AKM, started with Metabolife as a concept in the common area and experimented with selling everything from sports apparel to Avon. The key to success, he soon realized, was finding products that made a difference by changing and improving people’s lives. It was important that people come back for a repeat purchase because they needed another product or more of what they purchased.

He found that with Proactiv, an acne treatment system that made its mark in specialty retail. “For the first 13 or 14 years, we were going crazy opening Proactiv locations,” says Linda Johansen-James, “We learned to really hone our skills and were blessed to be selling the number one acne treatment product in the world. During the tough time of the Great Recession we were able to sustain ourselves when the traffic was down, stores were closing and consumers’ buying behavior changed. We studied how our clients purchased our products and introduced a very rich VIP program to encourage repeat buying. We also added a marketing department to drive more sales.”

The bottom line—AKM believes in selling products that change lives and that make a difference. This philosophy carries over to the vast suite of products that AKM has worked with or has helped launch.

Change with the times

As AKM grew with its Proactiv locations, they came upon situations where being in a mall as part of a fully staffed cart or kiosk was not always a viable strategy. Enter: automated retail. In a successful liaison with ZoomSystems, AKM has altered its specialty retail strategy to include vending units as part of its suite of operations.

“Automated retail gave us the opportunity to be able to continue to operate in the common area where we could not operate a staff location. In the beginning, we set up in malls where maybe the rent was too high or the traffic was a little less, but with the Zoom shop we were able to convert 70% of those who were purchasing from our carts to Zoom,” Johansen-James says, adding that this strategy has played a large part in AKM’s growth.

The company has sold over $1.7 billion worth of Proactiv in the common area and served over 52 million guests. AKM now has 110 Proactiv company-owned and operated carts in North America and 600 Zoom shops.

New partner

Over the last 13 years, AKM had an exclusive agreement with Guthy-Renker, LLC, a leading direct marketing company and the manufacturer of Proactiv, to sell their acne products through mall-based retail programs. In May of this year, Guthy-Renker entered in a joint venture with Nestlé Skin Health S.A. Nestlé Skin Health is a global leader focused on meeting the world’s increasing skin health needs with a broad range of innovative and scientifically proven products. What does this mean for AKM? “AKM is a critical part of Nestlé Skin Health’s growth strategy. We’re the only division with Proactiv that will interact with consumers directly.”

Johansen-James went on to explain that the new partnership will also give AKM access to new products and technology for the common area that will continue to make the Proactiv retail concept more experiential. Nestlé’s R&D department, based in Nice, France, has developed cutting-edge products and technology to treat acne that will complement the exiting Proactiv offerings. “These new products and technology advances will make our retail locations even more of a destination than ever before,” Johansen-James says, “The new partnership with Nestlé will give us additional international expansion opportunities.” Johansen-James also added that Nestlé will be providing extensive marketing support, which will enable AKM to drive consumer traffic to the malls.

Management and marketing muscle

AKM has used its years of know-how to help bring other concepts to specialty retail and help launch new products and experiences. AKM has opened an office on the East Coast for Business Development in addition to their offices in Las Vegas.

“We spent the last 19 years honing our skills and became absolutely proficient in every aspect of specialty retail, from the type of people we hire to our operations. We are able to take all of our knowledge and help our clients launch in specialty retail,” Johansen-James says. AKM’s roster of past and current clients includes, Proactiv, Sheer Cover, WEN, Solar City, Daymond John, Hickory Farms, Great Foods, Revlon, ABC Mouse and Animal Riders and many more.

AKM offers a whole roster of services that retailers can choose from. “If you want us to handle just the finance piece, we can do that, if you want us to oversee lease negotiation, we can do that. If you need marketing help, we have a full marketing department. We’ve really built an incredible corporate structure to support the field with an incredible staff, so we’ve got you covered.”

What specialty retail offers

Johansen-James says that the magic about the common area is that everybody walks by your kiosk or cart. It is a store without walls and you have a captive audience. AKM helped Revlon set up carts for a six-month period and facilitated their foray into specialty retail, providing a venue that would give Revlon direct access to consumers. This is especially important for national brands that do not typically have direct interactions with the consumer.

“Maybe these retailers and brands don’t understand how the consumer feels about their product because they’ve never gone direct to the consumer,” Johansen-James points out, “we’ve been able to give them an opportunity to interact with customers directly. Consumers can touch and feel the products, experience them and then we provide our clients with detailed statistics on each customer experience. That kind of information is invaluable to our partners.”

Many retailers have availed themselves of AKM’s management and marketing muscle to enjoy success in the common area. One of the company’s newer clients is Animal Riders USA. Animal Riders USA provides kids with the fun experience of “riding” animals in the mall. The feedback from AKM’s consulting clients has been phenomenal,Johansen-James reports.

“Think about what it costs in terms of roll-out for a concept in a mall. These clients have been able to test their concepts at a much lower price point, they’ve been able to get the word out and be successful,” she says.

“We tested a lot of things that didn’t grow [too] but it gave our clients the opportunity to operate in specialty retail and get valuable data from their customers that they hadn’t been able to get before.”

ABC Mouse, also one of AKM’s new clients, provides parents and kids the opportunity to try the on-line education software right at the cart on an iPad.

New cutting-edge ventures

AKM is looking forward to testing a new virtual reality concept that is sure to win over a key demographic: the millennials and younger crowd, Johansen-James says. A cart at the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas will serve as testing ground for the concept where customers can wear headsets and experience virtual reality, a part of experiential retail that is predicted to be big business over the next few years, according to Johansen-James. “We’ve designed a new kiosk just for this concept, and it is absolutely spectacular, it’s something we’re really proud of and will bring the most innovative virtual reality products to the common area,” she adds.

Innovation and cutting-edge know-how are what AKM continues to deliver through all arms of its operations including the consulting branch. Throughout their company history, honesty and integrity are virtues they put into practice. “We’re very upfront with our clients. We tell them if they have high enough gross margins to be able to test a concept. Proof of concept is important,” Johansen-James says.

In the end, any retailer who wants to test and market their products to a captive audience and a wide consumer base can use and benefit from AKM’s services, Johansen-James says. AKM’s powerful reach with an extensive Rolodex of shopping center management contacts has also helped. Johansen-James encourages retailers to think of themselves as retailers first. “We are not cart operators, you are not cart operators. We are retailers who choose to operate in the common area.”

Secrets for success


AKM is a strong believer in giving back to the community. “Our employees and guests not only donate their money but also time. AKM has participated in the St. Jude Children’s Hospital ‘Thanks and Giving’ fundraising campaign for 15 years and has raised nearly $1 million for the hospital,” Johansen-James says. AKM has also raised $10 million for Camp Soaring Eagle, a medical camp for kids who are chronically, critically and terminally ill. “I feel so blessed to be able to give back. We live by the motto to whom much is given, much is expected,” Johansen-James says.

Johansen-James attributes her success to her talented team of employees. She explains, “From the field staff to the corporate staff, we have the most passionate, dedicated, and enthusiastic employees. Our company philosophy is changing people lives and because of them, we continue to change the lives of our guests, our company and our communities. We believe that you should hire people better than you and help them to be successful.”

The AKM management team is also very involved in the retail real estate industry. Volunteering for ICSC and participating at SPREE RECon is very important to our organization. From being on the SPREE RECon planning committee to helping draft ICSC certification programs, it has been great for my team, company, my career and for me, says Johansen-James.

Johansen-James says. “Max and I feel very blessed to be able to continue to help other people launch in the common area, and we really believe that as leaders, our job is to look into the future and see it not as it stands right now, but how it can be and how we can shape it. We look at the next biggest thing, virtual reality for example, and ask why not launch that in the common area.”

“The important thing is to always have a competitive game plan,” Johansen-James says. By all indications, American Kiosk Management, with its extensive suite of products and concepts and their consulting division, has a winning strategy that is poised to continue to score big in specialty retail for the foreseeable future.