2010.07 | Objections to Self Service

If you read articles about Self Service, as I do, try to read the articles online and pay particular attention to the user comments.  Self Service is often a polarizing subject on these pages.  The comments range from the bounds of endless love of self service; its convenience, its simplicity, its line avoidance capabilities all the way down to the eternal hatred of robots that steal jobs from your friends and neighbours and loathing of the soothing tones that ask you to place your item in the bagging area after you had already done so.  While these comments need to be taken with some context, given that comment sections on the Interweb are notoriously laced with vitriole on both sides of any argument, the fact that the technology is growing cannot be ignored.

While most of the people I speak with in retail technology circles are convinced of the value of self service, there is a segment of the population yet to embrace it.  Any changes that are impacting society in this manner are likely to draw ire from various circles, and that has to be respected and understood.  Let’s consider a number of concerns voiced by consumers and how they can be dealt with to ensure everyone gets the most from the solution – retailer and consumer alike. 

“I prefer to deal with a live person”  – Self service provides the ability for customers to interface with a given retailer in the manner in which they wish.  If that is assisted service; great.  If it’s self service; also fine.  Surveys show that customers prefer retailers that provide self service options.  For the foreseeable future there will be people who want to deal with people, and that should always be an option.  For consumers, know that even if there are only self-checkouts open, retailers will generally still assist you with the purchase if you wish it.  Some retailers have a full service attendant who can complete your transaction for you at the the attendant station, or they can assist you with the transaction at the self-checkout lane.    When my colleagues and I work with retailers and the attendants they employ for self-checkout, it’s the ones who deal with people best that have the most success in helping customers.  Being involved in assisting clients in the way that they wish is key.  Reading people and standing back if that’s what’s required, or getting involved in a friendly courteous way is very important.  It is still possible to have a live interaction at self-checkout, but I think the social interaction pattern is still being developed.  We’ve had a century to become accustomed to the assisted service interaction, so this will take some time.  My recommendation to retailers for consumers who don’t like self-checkout at all is to ensure that they can seek out an assisted service option – whether it’s an assisted service lane or the self-checkout attendant.   Self service isn’t for everyone, but over time, it will become the de facto situation, much like self serve gas pumps and ATMs. 

“This machine takes jobs away from people in my community” –  Working in the self-service industry, I’ve seen this scenario quite a bit, and I completely understand the concerns here.  My family has working class roots, and I understand the anxiety around jobs going away.  Let’s consider some history to analyze this one a bit.  ATM’s have been installed in Canada since at least 1972, and have become so common that many of us can’t remember a time when we couldn’t obtain cash on the weekend or late at night because the bank was closed.  While I’m certain that there was impact on jobs, the banks still employ quite a lot of people who seem satisfied with their jobs.  Branches also still exist, though what is completed at branches tends to be the more complex jobs that still can’t be automated.   Also consider that any self service machine that is in place in a community requires a fair bit of care and feeding, and much of it has to be done on site.  Odds are good that the person who repairs that device lives in that community and spends the good salary they make there as well.    The bottom line is that machines cannot replace humans.  They can automate repetitive, relatively simple tasks.  They don’t know things.  There will always be people required to run them, to service them, to update them, and to implement them.  People will always be needed in retail to provide the human touch, to know where things are and to understand what people want.  The machines are tools for those working in the stores, and in order to be competitive at any time in history, organizations need to leverage the best possible tools.  If they don’t leverage the most productive tools, their organization will fail, and the jobs will definitely be gone.

“The retailers are just doing this to save money.” – Retailers that provide these devices definitely want to maximize their return.  If they didn’t, they would be out of business.  There is definitely a labour savings element to self service, but it’s almost never a direct takeout scenario where someone loses their job the day after self-checkout is installed.  A traditional store that is open late, or open first thing in the morning may only have one or two attendants.  Traditionally they have 1-2 lanes open to deal with customers.  Now when 6 customers wish to pay, each of them is in a line of 3 or 6 people.  Now those people are waiting instead of getting out with their purchases.  I hate to wait, and experience dictates humans would rather take action than wait for someone else.  A Self-checkout solution provides that store the flexibility to assist more customers with fewer resources.  It’s not about labour elimination, it’s about increasing throughput with those resources.  The throughput improvement in this scenario can be re-allocated to other jobs in the store that many assist the retailer in differentiating itself – jobs like having people on the sales floor who know about the products consumers want to buy.   

“This machine behaves strangely and never works correctly”  – As time passes, I encounter fewer consumers who don’t interface with technology in some way every day.  Technology lets us down sometimes.  Self-checkout is technology, and problems occur.  My experience with self-checkout is that the greater proportion of issues that occur are due to the consumer misunderstanding of what is expected of them.   When we expect a machine to do something for us and it doesn’t work, it is very frustrating.  Once again, the role of an attendant in a retail setting is key.  Those of us who work in the industry are sometimes too close to our solutions to recognize that someone off the street will not know the solution as intimately as we do.  My colleagues and I always highlight the importance of working with consumers to explain why the machine won’t do what they want it to do.  For example, many consumers do not realize that the way security works on a self-checkout unit is that the item is generally measured against a weight database after it is scanned and placed in a bag on the bag well scale.  If a customer attempts to place their purse in the bag well scale, a perfectly reasonable move if you don’t know what it does, the machine will tell you to remove the unexpected item.  This is understandably frustrating, as customers may have already begun to scan their items, and attendants must be sure to explain to them what went wrong and why.  With this understanding, consumers gain confidence in using the system and will not encounter so many errors.  I can tell you that I’ve used self-checkouts of all types and flavours, and once one gets the hang of it, it can be done quickly and without interventions from the attendant most of the time.   

I’ve spent lots of time in stores with attendants, store managers, and customers.    These systems are not perfect, but they have certainly come a long way in the past 13 years since they began gaining a foothold.  They are here to stay for the benefit of retailers and consumers alike.  Take advantage of the opportunity to understand them and pass on suggestions on how to make them better.  Self Service vendors are always willing to listen.

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