2015.03 | self-service: everybody benefits

cbc-nrfWith newspapers struggling as they are in Canada, with newsrooms merging and paper editions being shelved, it isn’t surprising that the level of journalism from a recent CBC article left me shaking my head. The recent article titled: “Self-checkouts: Who really benefits from the technology?” seems slanted to provoke the ire of hard working, time starved Canadians who find themselves hit with increasing food prices, a dropping dollar and a challenging job market and economy.  As the title of this post indicates, everyone can benefit from self-service.

Let’s consider the article and its assertions, which seem to be designed to provoke those that don’t like retail technology to read (or watch) it and complain.

“And it’s not just in-store shopping: Canadians are selecting their own movie seats, printing their own event tickets and checking themselves into flights. But not everyone is buying it.  

“I’m starting to resent doing unpaid work,” says Bonnie Banks, who lives in Whitby, Ont. “And it seems to be escalating.”

Self service technologies are not for everyone.  I recommend retailers provide choices for their shoppers so that we can interface with retailers in any way that we wish.  Shoppers can feel free NOT to print their own movie tickets or NOT check themselves in to a flight on their mobile, but should remember that the shorter line they are enjoying is the result of others not having to join the line, so EVERYONE benefits from self-service, whether they use it or not.

Where does one draw the line at “unpaid work”?  At the beginning of the twentieth century, clerks gathered shopper requested items from behind the counter and bundled them all up. Shoppers generally have to walk through the store and select their own items today.  Is that “unpaid work”?

Not a relevant enough reference? Shoppers now have the option of purchasing groceries online and picking them up at the store.  Should they feel slighted that they must drive to the store to pick it up?  Nobody thinks that.  The assertion that shoppers and consumers are being harnessed for work is ridiculous. Shoppers have choices and they are free to make them, whether it’s which retailer to visit, or which type of transaction they wish to engage in.

The newer machines don’t just scan and take your cash. Self-checkout kiosks can also be programmed to upsell, and may succeed in getting you to buy more where humans fail.

In a 2004 experiment, McDonald’s found that customers using self-service kiosks supersized their meals, spending 30 per cent more on average. One reason? We’re more willing to increase the order when we’re not worrying about the person behind the cash judging our choices.

Self-service machines can ask the exact same questions as people about upselling on meals – which every single restaurant worker does – and this is a heretofore unknown evil plan of self-service?  The units were more successful at upselling 11 years ago than humans.  This says more about humans than it does about technology.

mcdonalds-self-order-kiosks-canadaInterestingly enough, McDonald’s Canada have been deploying self-service order taking systems in Canada over the past few months, and I think they work very well.  Based on my own experience, I would say it enables them to take more orders at once, and split the fulfillment of orders from payment to the benefit of both McDonald’s and their shoppers.  If shoppers prefer to order from a cashier, that option stands, and there are fewer people in the line.  More options; more convenience. Perhaps the article could have considered a current deployment and the potential benefits to users and retailer alike instead of referencing an 11 year old study from the same company.

Advocates say that self-service kiosks give customers convenience, privacy and control.

“Some people like to be in control of what’s going on. Some people like to have a very private experience. So if I’m going in and buying something that’s maybe a personal item, I might prefer to buy it on my own without help,” says Christina Forest, a senior project manager for Fujitsu, which makes self-checkout machines.

This is absolutely accurate, and one would suppose, the CBC’s attempt at showing the positive side of self-service. Once again, retail is all about choice.  I’ve not yet seen a store force anyone to use a self-checkout, and as the interviewee mentions above, it provides a level of privacy for purchases that might be uncomfortable for some, and even provides shoppers the opportunity to bag items in their own way.

I don’t always choose self-service (if I have a large cart of items for example, I will choose an assisted lane) but it is ideal to have the option.  Control and convenience are key to retailers getting my shopping dollar, and I’m certain other shoppers agree.

“Aside from the obvious technology costs, having customers do some work themselves can mean less overhead costs for companies.

For example, the cost of checking in a passenger at the airport is about $3 with a staffed desk, according to a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation entitled Embracing the Self-Service Economy.

But when customers use electronic terminals? That cost drops to 14 cents.

In total, moving to a fully automated check-in and boarding process could save the airline industry $1.6 billion a year, the International Air Transport Association says.

Are those savings being passed on to the consumer? Marketplace spoke to leading retailers and industry experts and found no clear evidence that is always the case.

CBC MarketPlace expected a massive drop in costs to be correlated with increased use of self-service?  This seems an unlikely outcome for a business as sophisticated and complex as a retailer or an airline, both subject to thousands of external market forces and consumer influences.  While there are savings from self-service, that does not mean that staff are ignominiously dumped in favour of machines with a massive reduction in cost, or that this change in service can occur overnight.  That cost can now be transferred to other parts of the business to better effect. Retailers can allocate knowledgeable staff to assist customers or provide other value added services.

If these costs were NOT shared with consumers in some way, should CBC MarketPlace not have noted a massive increase in airline profits as soon as boarding pass kiosks were implemented given reduced costs and no change to what is charged to the client?  Any business that wants to survive has to change with the times requires an ROI for new technology.  There had to be an ROI for these items, and now they have become a part of the fabric of how business is done because they are convenient and avoid needless queues; not because they are a cash grab for retailers and airlines.

“And do self-checkouts get you out of the store faster? Marketplace timed shoppers with identical grocery lists to see how cashiers compare to self-checkouts.

The cashier was able to get through the transaction faster and with fewer problems. And in one case, an incorrectly punched code at a self-checkout meant one shopper was charged $70 for 10 brussels sprouts.”

This bit of “science” will rankle any of my colleagues in retail technology. Ask any retailer or any retail technology vendor. Absolutely nobody in retail would suggest that a shopper will outpace a cashier for an individual transaction. How could a shopper be better at a cashier’s job than a cashier? That thinking misses the point completely. If you consider your own time shopping, it’s never the time that the cashier is scanning or waiting for you to tender that takes the time. The time that rankles is queuing; waiting in line is the part that frustrates universally.

Consider that a single transaction for a small basket could take 90 seconds from start to finish.  There is one cashier and one lane open and four shoppers.  The first shopper waits 0 seconds, the second waits 90 seconds, the third shopper waits 180 seconds, the fourth shopper waits 240 seconds.

If there is a self-service option one attendant with 4 lanes, NONE of the shoppers wait.  Even if they take perhaps 1.5 times as long, which is a reasonable estimate, all of the shoppers are out of the store in ~135 seconds.  All of the shoppers get out of the store quickly and get one with their lives.  I would rather finish and leave, but others are free to use the queue of which I am not a part.

New self-checkout units are also getting smaller, so that more and more self-service terminals can take the place of traditional assisted lanes. This means that small footprint stores that are fantastically busy can have more selling space and increased capacity to complete transactions. It seems like bad business NOT to use self service in sites with lines. Not only will it reduce the lines; it will reduce the number of shoppers who decide to leave as the queue is too long; increasing revenue opportunity with no other change to the store.

Now, for those that want a traditional assisted service, attendants should be trained to kindly and helpfully assist those people as they wish or direct them to the lanes where they can be helped – with lines reduced by those using self-service terminals I would add.

“Beyond money, Lambert says there are other ways doing “shadow work” costs us.

“It often takes the human being out of the equation,” he says. “Those small relationships are part of how you build a community, frankly.

“Robots don’t interchange banter. There’s no pleasantries going back and forth between you and the kiosk. And as a result, it somewhat dehumanizes daily life.”

Jenni Murray, a columnist for the U.K newspaper Daily Mail, wrote she finds the increasing dependence on self-checkouts “a frustrating, depressing experience.”

“There’s nothing like some human contact for making a dull chore a better experience,” she wrote in a column last year.”

The human touch makes all of the difference; one can’t disagree with that.

Self-service does not necessarily mean we are dealing with a “robot”. When I visit the airport, there are always a great number of airline staff on hand to direct customers with less experience. The touch is no less personal when one uses a screen after one talks to them for assistance on where to print a baggage tag.

Retailers I work with are keen to provide a wonderful customer experience and that does not differ with self-service. Why would retailers encourage friendly, thoughtful cashiers and interactions at assisted service and not at self service?  Attendants trained by our teams teach them to encourage shoppers to use self-service if they are in a queue to be helpful. They are encouraged to be engaging, and watch for cues from self-service shoppers and assist them quickly and thoughtfully if they require help.

If self-checkouts are a “frustrating, depressing experience” for a shopper, there are a two potential issues: 1. The self-checkouts are not being managed correctly; with assistance to be sure that shoppers understand any issues and they can be corrected quickly and helpfully. 2.  The shopper just doesn’t like self-service and should go to an assisted lane, or have their order processed at the self-checkout by an attendant.

No one solution pleases everyone. Staff should be sure to read the cues and deal appropriately with customers. Customer satisfaction is a never ending job for an entire retailer ecosystem.  To blame a bad customer experience on a machine is shortsighted.

“According to research by the retail-technology company Tensator, one out of every three British shoppers polled had walked out of a store without the goods they intended to buy, simply because of a bad experience with a self-service checkout.”

While this certainly could be true, that study polled 400 people out of 64.1 million in the United Kingdom, which is not terribly sweeping.  Even so, the study offers a great opportunity for re-assessment of the implementation of self-service versus damning self-service itself.  From the details shown, technical issues do need to be resolved, and it appears that queuing and mix of self and assisted lanes could be improved. Retail is a messy business, and self-service is a part of that. There is always room for improvement.

This brings forth a key point.  Self-checkout has evolved to the point where it needs be assessed as part of the greater store ecosystem.  No longer can self-service be thrown into a store to augment traditional POS.  Channels are expanding with click and collect, mobile, loyalty, and self service screens of all kinds. If self-service is to be effective, it needs to be considered as part of that store ecosystem and retailers need to understand and own how all of these gears mesh together.

While there is always room for improvement, self-service definitely has much more upside than this article leads the public to believe.  In fact, retailers haven’t remotely leveraged the full potential to get shoppers in and out of stores in the way that best suits them with self-service and other technologies.

While the article and many of the reader comments wish to lay the blame for various issues at feet of self-service, these systems are merely tools leveraged by people in a genuine attempt to provide great service. Self-service isn’t about machines, it’s about getting people what they want in the quickest way possible.  Like they say, if you hate an advertisement, perhaps it’s not aimed at you. It’s all about choice, and you should select what works for you.

I now await scathing articles on the evils of self-service fuel pumps, ATMs and eCommerce – or maybe not.

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