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I’m all lost in the supermarket: unexpected item in the bagging area.

October 21, 2013

Everywhere you go, the emphasis is on self-service. Self-assessment tax returns, self check-in at the airport, ATMs to get your cash and pay-at-pump for petrol. You can even attempt to diagnose your own medical symptoms on NHS Direct before you go to Boots claiming to have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and asking for a plaster, but be prepared for their computer to ask another computer for a second opinion. Then of course, there is the self-service supermarket scan-and-pay.

On Saturday I wandered into my local supermarket. Having completed my shopping, and remembering to bring my own carrier bags, I was presented with a checkout choice: go for the human option and have your shopping catapulted down a fast moving conveyor belt faster than you can see or catch it, or go solo and try to do a bit of DIY with the self-service scanner. Looks easy enough. But don’t be fooled. Those checkout ladies, who didn’t make it as far as X-Factor, have had years of practice. As has that posh lady who says Checkout Number 4 please. Let’s go self-service. Here’s my log:

It’s my contribution to saving the planet. I open my plastic carrier bag, clip the handles on the metal fingers, smooth it out so stuff goes in more easily. Unexpected item in bagging area. What? A carrier bag in the bagging area! Wait for assistant to approach with barcode crib sheet, which she scans to acknowledge the alarm. Scan product: brought own carrier bag. So far, so good. Scan first product. Alarm goes off: approval needed in a stentorian tone.

Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge I’m old enough to buy bottle of Pinot Grigio. Put wine in bag. Loose items: Please look up item: Ok, I have parsnip, does ‘P’ come after ‘M’ in the alphabet?’ I begin to sweat as the concept of the alphabet deserts me. Blip. In the bag. No alarm. Clenched fist. Get in.

Scan box of anadins. Alarm goes off: approval needed. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge (again) that I’m old enough to buy this item, just in case I got younger since last time. But she’s busy helping another innocent victim on the adjacent self-service lottery till. Get bored of waiting: ask another assistant to help. Sorry I don’t have authorisation. Give a look of genuine sympathy at the untrusted member of staff. She scurries off.

Wait while the flustered assistant waves her all-powerful barcode card to acknowledge that the thirteen-year-old kid next to me can buy Grand Theft Auto V. Despite clearly being underage. Assistant eventually acknowledges my alarm. Scan second box of anadins. Alarm goes off. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to cancel alarm. It doesn’t stop. She tells me you can’t buy more than one of these at the self-service tills. Why not? You just can’t. We’ve run out, do you think I’m going to kill myself by buying two boxes of anadin? One box will kill me if I’m determined and drink all the wine I just bought to go with it. She stares at me like I’m Jimmy Saville reincarnated.

Shake head, put second box aside while she cancels the alarm. Scan bread, reduced price. Wrong price appears. Barcode blindness. Wait for assistant to figure out how to get the right price up. She can’t. Wait for a trusted supervisor to approach and stab screen impatiently. Repeatedly swiping, running the risk of repetitive strain injury and I’m feeling a pang of sympathy for those who do this for a living. I tell her to cancel the item instead. I’ll go without bread; it would be tainted anyway with the stench of technological and human ineptitude.

It’s all about barcodes. No code – no can do. You might recognise the item as a melon and so might the friendly human supervisor who has to guard the self-checkout area. It might even say the word ‘melon’ on a sticker on it and even have the price printed on it, but all that makes no difference. Without a barcode it might as well be an alien spacecraft (by the way, special offer: 2 for £99 million at Asda, right now until next Sunday).

The man next to me, who looked like a student (beard, obviously no sleep, holding a placard about student loans) seemed to have a system. He weighed a mango but when it asked what the item was, he put potato. Clever. Provided he had done his sums correctly and a mango cost more than a potato, pound for pound. A certain amount of trust is, after all, involved already. When I confessed to having bought loose bananas, the screen asked me how many, and I duly entered nine, the correct number. I could so easily have halved it and put four and a half: nobody checked.

Alone again with the nemesis machine. It taunts me until I figure out which of the seven flashing orifices accept debit cards. A right palaver of paying. Get the hell out of the store and swear never to use the machines. Ever. Again. Driving away, unexpected item in the bagging area in a tone of voice like a truculent teenager is ringing my ears. If I hear that phrase one more time I’m going to hunt down the person who invented self-service checkouts and put an unexpected item in their bagging area.

Now self-service checkouts are expanding throughout the UK, but many of us aren’t happy with them. New research suggests 48% of Britons think self-service checkouts are a nightmare, neither quick nor convenient. Quite the opposite in fact, and their complaints are all too familiar. First introduced in the UK in the 1990s, the number of self-service checkouts is set to double in the next few years. This is because they offer supermarkets quick cost savings and in today’s economic and highly competitive retail climate, they see that to be a good thing.

Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, also leads the do-it-yourself checkout league, with self-service counters in 256 stores. The tills process 25% of all transactions in those shores. Sainsbury’s has them in 220 stores and is planning more.  Waitrose offers a variation on the theme – it has no such tills but has a Quick Check service via a handheld device where people scan and pack items as they shop.

The aim is to really cut back on time at the till, but I’m not sure it’s what I want. In the past shopping was all about personal service at the corner shop, but over the years it has become more and more impersonal. From grocery shops, to supermarkets, to shopping on the Internet and now the expansion of self-service tills, face-to-face time has been reduced or even excised completely from the shopping experience. Are we becoming anti-social?

Customer service, it then seems, is completely lost when it comes to self-service checkouts.  Such advancements show they’re only looking inwards at their own cost structure, reducing staff, and not outwards at customer service or benefits. The only staff you see are those who are rushing around trying to keep the machines in order, if they have to assist you in any way it is normally by simply swiping their own access card over the till to unfreeze the machine, they have no time to provide any form of customer service because they are busy completing the job that was once done by several members of staff.

In some settings it works. The Oyster card system and London Underground ticket machines have benefited both customers and business. Large numbers of passengers can pay to travel quickly in an environment where space and time is limited. The technology here is pretty reliable and those using it at the busiest times are often regular travellers, therefore well versed in how to use the machines. At 8am at a busy station I’m happy to admit that machine beats man.

Before long, perhaps, the Pinot Grigio glitch will be overcome by fitting the machines with a biometric facial recognition device that can tell, by the number of wrinkles on your face, or even the world-weary look in your eyes, that you are of alcohol-buying age, and indeed are a regular purchaser of alcohol too!

So where will it all end? Soon we’ll be slicing our own bacon and baking our own bread too? Supermarkets seem to be pushing ahead with the self-scan tills because it suits them rather than their customers. They need to pay increasing attention to the experience they provide in-store to ensure they do not drive consumers away.

There is something I find completely Zen about supermarkets. Wandering up and down the aisles, pushing the cart in front of me, and slipping into some kind of zone where all I think about are the labels and colours around me. It clears my head and I find it strangely relaxing. But the technology drives me mad – forget the pesky self-service scanners, it’s hard enough just getting the automatic doors at the supermarket to open to acknowledge my existence.

During the last 30 years supermarkets have been a dominant force in transforming what we eat, how we shop, how our food is produced, our high streets and our countryside, and you can argue that many of the changes have been for the worse because of the ideology of the supermarkets and what they have planned for us: the total retailing experience.  It’s a paradigm shift away from personal choice to the mass market one-size-fits-all, but there is an emerging model, mass markets of one, where every individual customer is a market of one – in other words, from creating standardised value through mass production to creating customer-unique, personalised value through mass customisation – the iTunes and Amazon retail model.

This means moving from pushing products to fulfilling individual needs, from focusing solely on market share to measuring customer share, and from marketing to the masses to cultivating learning relationships with each customer. In response to decades of marketing overload, consumers have adapted the way they absorb information. Today’s consumer hears an operator on the phone or glances at a piece of mail and decides in an instant whether it has value. Messages not immediately identifiable to the individual are promptly cast off into a sea of irrelevant clutter.

As the customer has evolved, so must your business. Companies need to move away from the traditional mass marketing practice of blanketing everyone with the same message and start connecting with consumers on an individual basis. The dysfunctional self-service till isn’t helping build any semblance of customer intimacy, rather the opposite in creating a negative personal experience.

We’ve reached an age where technology can bring businesses and customers closer together. By improving the quality of their experience, customers will form a stronger bond with your organisation and, as a result, increase your profit potential. But if so many shoppers need help when using self-service tills, retailers need to be looking at the technology and the way it’s presented to the consumer. If so many people need help, it’s not helpful.

Buying ordinary products in a supermarket puts me in touch with my deepest emotions. I get so excited when I see food, I go crazy. I spend ages arranging my trolley so that everything fits in and nothing gets squashed. Once you’ve reached the point where you can pay rent, you can go to the vet and you can go to the supermarket, after that point it’s all the same. I don’t have the appetite for a decadent lifestyle.

But with these self-service tills, I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily. I’m tuned into the 3 for 2 offers, and save coupons from packets of tea, but I left my soul somewhere between the aubergines and the pre-packed salads as fear of those tills is greater than the daleks created when I was aged seven.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2013 8:46 am

    I completely agree. Why is my jar of coffee so unexpected? It is a supermarket, they sell coffee. It cannot be such a surprise for them. Maybe if I had placed an Armadillo or a bag of horese manure , they would have the right to reprimand me. As it is I am left feeling unjustly accused.

  2. Susan Brookes permalink
    October 21, 2013 9:42 am

    Be thankful you don’t do it every week!!!!! Enjoyed reading your ‘clash’ with the supermarket giants x

    Sent from my iPad

  3. October 21, 2013 10:54 am

    Both Pete & I laughing our heads off at this, it is so true. I have to put up with similar rants like this from Pete most mornings – Thursday involved road rage this before 8am in the morning!!

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