Mike Anthony @ engage consultants

Mike Anthony on Shopper Marketing

If the self-checkout doesn’t work for shoppers, it doesn’t matter how efficient it is for retailers

with 5 comments

I recently wrote about some of the downsides of the self-checkout to both retailers and manufacturers, and how these unforeseen consequences could have been avoided. A week after writing this I found myself faced with a self-service check-out for the first time in a long time, and personally experienced how they don’t seem to work for shoppers either.

My first visit was to Tesco, where a whole host of issues tested my patience, as well as the patience of Tesco staff.

Problem One: I bought a toy for my daughter, who excitedly wanted to hold it. Unfortunately this screwed with the detector pad where I was supposed to place the products, and the machine froze. A human operator may have smiled and nodded at my daughter waving her new light sabre, but this automated, efficient one, got the hump.

Problem Two: the machine got likewise grumpy when I tried to buy alcohol. Whilst my boyish good looks are legendary, it’s a while since staff at the checkout queried my age. For the second time, a supervisor had to be called.

Third time: I’m beginning to get the feeling that the lady who is in charge of the self-checkout zone doesn’t like me. This time my wife has bought a cardigan, and we have a security tag that needs to be removed.

Fourth time: Maybe my fault, but I’m a shopper so there you go. In Thailand, where I live we don’t have “chip and pin” (we have chip but no pin), so I need to sign. In other stores, the human staff have smiled and commented on the throwback novelty of checking a signature, and giggled when they can’t find a pen. Here the grumpiness of the automated machine was matched only by that of the Self-Checkout zone supervisor, who had to assist for the fourth time, and was beginning to think this was a wind up.

My second experience was in a WH Smiths store at Manchester airport . For those of you not familiar with Smiths, they sell newspapers, magazines, drinks snack and a few other items. It was early and I was the only shopper in the store. It was just me, four “fast-checkout” machines and one member of staff who politely told me as I approached the main check out area, that it was “self-checkout  only”.

I was buying one bottle of water. I scanned it, and started paying, using a whole bundle of coins I had in my pocket. It took ages – each one having to drop down a chute to be recognized. Several were bounced back. The solitary staff member watched me, and I wondered if it had occurred to her, as it had to me, that, given I was the only shopper in the store, surely it would have been so much easier for her to serve me herself. I smiled awkwardly, and picked up the coins that had fallen to the floor. Finally I finished paying. Then I had to tell the machine that no, I hadn’t brought my own bag. Buying one bottle of water took almost two minutes. As a passing shot, the screen flashed up “thank you for using our fast checkout service”.  Self checkout maybe. Fast? No way.

Self-checkout is a lovely idea, but it appears that it doesn’t necessarily work too well for retailers, manufacturers, or shoppers. At a time when human service is one of the only differentiators that bricks and mortar retailers have in the battle versus online shopping, isn’t it time retailers admitted defeat and focused on adding value through this differentiator, rather than removing it from their stores?

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Written by Mike Anthony

May 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Hi Mike, as you know I have just come back from the UK and experienced the very same…I faced another challenge. Not all stores have the loading area on the same side… I found some chap scanning his items and putting them on my bag area! Have you also tried to the handheld scanners… excellent as they are (I tried two retailers), but try to find a decent explanation for someone who has never used them

    Nick Williams

    May 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm

  2. As I finished the last comment I sat and read a summary in “The Week” it quotes “The Sunday Times” UK and says “More staff means more profit”. …

    “now Tesco, which was in the vanguard of the self-service revolution, seems to have realized an obvious truth; that it’s counterproductive to hire as few people as you can get away with, and spend the bare minimum on them. The retail giant, which issued a shock profit warning earlier this year, has unveiled plans to end the cheese pairing, and instead recruit 8,000 more staff and spend 200mGBP on training them. This follows a trial in which increasing staff in some stores led to a 1.1% sales boost. Studies on low cost stores in the US have come up with similar results. Finally, retailers are realizing that real customer loyalty is generated not by expensive campaigns to make us feel us ” warm and fuzzy” about their brand, but by shops full of helpful, knowledgeable staff”…

    I admire Tesco for leading the way in technology to achieve the reduction in staff numbers, in the same way it is good to see them challenge taking things the other way. However, it is not a step back as the staff no doubt will be well trained and not only support good customer service, but also the technology that also needs a human hand.

    Nick Williams

    May 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    • Hi Nick,

      I guess like all technology it will take time for them to get it right and I agree that Tesco have always been brave for trying new things. The issue raises two important points for me.

      The first is the “unforeseen consequences” of changing shopping behavior (or anything for that matter). I would be interested whether anyone has measured the effect of self-scan devices on shopping behavior. Does the “thrill of the scan” encourage purchases, or is it one more distraction to take your mind away from the product all around you?

      The second is closer to the point you make based on the Times article. Tesco and their like will struggle to win on efficient service against internet retail. In the same way that they will struggle to win on price unless they get rid of all of their stores. It appears the move to personal, “human” service is a solid move as its hard for the web-based competitors to deliver that.

      Thanks very much for contributing!

      All the best

      Mike

      Mike Anthony

      May 31, 2012 at 6:59 am

  3. Mike – It’s interesting you notice this as an outsider – and I have observed the same thing. I think part of this is someone’s idea of modernity and nothing to do with efficiency ; If you can build cars without people then surely you can operate a supermarket in the same way. The argument is probably that by doing this you avoid having to hire as many cashiers, but in a way you dehumanise the store and therefore commoditise the shopping process. Its something that has gone too far in my opinion and I believe there will be a readjustment to a more human approach, which inevitably will be better for the supermarket too. And Nick’s email is just the proof of that.

    kenci59

    May 31, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    • Hi,

      Thanks! You are absolutely right that this was about reducing headcount for retailers, and the savings must be significant to counter the increase in other costs (e.g. shrinkage). It appears that we are all in agreement (Tesco included) that the human touch is important, and that retailers have missed a trick by taking people out of the store. Human interaction used to be standard in retail. In the internet age, it can become competitive advantage, as its the one thing digital retailers can’t do (yet).

      All the best,

      Mike

      Mike Anthony

      June 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm


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