The Self Service ‘Experience’ is a Basket-Case.
Maurice Duffy

Written by Maurice Duffy

I was visiting my local branch of WHSmith to buy my newspapers recently and was surprised and disappointed by the experience I received. ‘Experience’ to me in this context means meeting or exceeding the individual desires and needs of the other person. This was not an experience that unfortunately either met or exceeded my expectations. WHSmith had removed two manned tills since my last visit and introduced two new self-service tills. Now, I never had a secret hankering at this stage in my life to be a checkout person. Not that I think I am too posh to do it, I just get a nervous twitch every time "unexpected item in the bagging area" is announced in a loud automated voice again and again especially for those hard of hearing in the shop. ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’ is so synonymous with the 21st Century shopping experience it has become a T-shirt slogan. What's so unexpected anyway? I only swiped the item a second ago?

It's like the machine is shouting publicly “are you too stupid to do this - go home now”. Finally, after mastering the ambidextrous feat of juggling shoppingand plastic bags and then the trauma of paying, I am nervous about leaving the shop. Did I scan it all correctly? Did I select the right type of bread roll from the menu? Did I weigh those vegetables right?  Will I feel the long arm of the law on my shoulder as I walk out the shop for non-payment of that unexpected item!

These automated self-service tills have now been a feature of shopping for over 10 years and whilst in some areas for me they work very well (when you have fast small buys) in other areas they send me screaming to the hills and absolutely convinced I will never use this brand again. Why? Because of the ‘experience’. Yes I have my frustrations with self-service! What really winds me up even more, though, is when you go into Tesco/ Sainsbury’s at certain times of day, and of 12 ‘manned’ checkouts, only one of them is actually ‘manned’, the rest are left unattended, presumably in a cynical attempt to force customers to use the self-service tills. They were meant to save customers time and hassle, and I for one do not buy this line. And with that dreaded catchphrase ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’, they can be a major nuisance not a help.

Retailers are adamant that self-service has not led to a reduction in staffing numbers, insisting employees are now working on different duties (do you believe this?). I keep wondering what these other duties are? They must all be crammed like lemons into the back office space as I have not seen a noticeable increase of floor staff.

Now if using self-service provided a 10% discount in price (customer benefit) rather than waiting for the only manned till (customer sacrifice) perhaps there might be some justification. Trade unions report an increasing number of cases where shoppers, frustrated by problems with the checkouts, have taken out their anger on the individual staff member.  

And you know what impersonal delivers—no brand loyalty! Now I’m fairly comfortable with the technology, and yet outside of ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ there are other occasions where I need help from an assistant. If I want to buy paracetamol, alcohol, anything sharp, anything above a 12 certificate or use a voucher – I need an assistant to approve the purchase and that I am in my fifties.

On the Which consumer website today 59% of people say they do not like self-service tills and 38% of people say they do. With that number of people not liking the way they are served why do retail outlets continue to endorse them? Surely not for cost saving, as we are led to believe that all those people who could be on the tills are doing other work. Now if they offered a variation on the theme I might be interested.  For example Waitrose who offers a chance for you to scan items in their basket or trolley as you shop, with the aim to really cut back on time at the ‘manned’ till – that is definitely my kind of ‘experience’.  

The new language of business must shift from asking customers to sacrifice something, to exceeding their expectations. We must move from supply lines to demand lines. We must ask our customers to demand more from us as that will allow us to be unique in our market. If we want to truly transform our businesses we must start that ‘experience’ each and every moment (yes moment) a person has an interaction with us as a business, as a leader and as an individual employee. This ‘experience’ touch point has the highest value to customers and to employees because it has deep personal meaning.

For a business to appeal to its market, consumers and employees, and build an emotional engagement, every interaction must tell a story, one that draws us in, broadens our horizons and delivers added value to our lives. This leads to the emotional type of customer and employee loyalty that is just invaluable to our business. Competing in the market today demands innovative, emotional engagements. Creating complete 360-degree ‘experiences’ is the only way to be relevant and visible in a glutted marketplace. The more self-service tills there are, the less opportunity there is to engage with your clients unless all those extra staff are going to make our trip easier. How about we go in with a list, hand the list off, go for a coffee, and afterwards find that our shopping has been delivered to our cars—now that would be an ‘experience’!