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Comment: don’t let self-service kill service in retail

Back in the early 2000s Tesco partly attributed its healthy profits at the time to the adoption of its ‘One in Front’ strategy that addressed the… View Article


Comment: don’t let self-service kill service in retail

Back in the early 2000s Tesco partly attributed its healthy profits at the time to the adoption of its ‘One in Front’ strategy that addressed the chief bugbear of customers – queuing at tills – by dynamically opening check-outs according to levels of demand.

Heat-seeking cameras sensed the number of customers entering a store and predicted the number of checkouts that needed to be open in an hour. By monitoring and managing the service precisely — by customer, by store and by the minute – it was calculated that 250,000 more customers every week did not have to queue.

Despite the great advances in technology the queues are back. According to the Grocer 33 annual survey the customer service levels in supermarkets have fallen to a new record low and the single reason for this is the soaring levels of queues at the checkouts. Ironically it is technology that is causing the problem rather than solving it this time around. The culprit is self-service checkouts (SCOs) that are replacing manned checkouts.

Apparently as much as 80% of sales go through these devices in a typical supermarket. The rationale for introducing the devices by the grocers is obvious – less employees required on the shop floor saves money. But what about the customers?

Certainly the 20% of shoppers who use the manned checkouts are having a ropey old time queuing at the limited number of regular tills that are now available. As for the 80% using SCOs I wonder how many would prefer to use a manned till if they knew they would not have to join the long queues. I frequently suffer frustrating experiences at SCOs including – the time-consuming need to weigh loose items, the bagging areas often being too small, and the age verification checks that slow the process. It all adds up to low-end service.

The bad news is more SCOs are on the way, according to RBR, which found that in 2022 the second highest number of shipments globally was recorded and the technology is moving beyond grocery and into other categories such as DIY and fashion with Zara rolling-out such solutions.

The saviour for some people might ultimately be the just-walk-out, cashier-less stores that are exciting many supermarket bosses. RBR found the number of stores offering such a ‘grab and go’ service grew by more than 60% in 2022 with 700 stores worldwide now offering these frictionless shopping experiences. Aldi, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s are among the growing number of supermarkets introducing such technology into their stores.

However, Tesco has recognised it is not going to be the great checkout panacea and it has adapted the model of its cashier-less GetGo stores by adopting a hybrid approach whereby they include a number of manned and SCOs.

What seems to have been given insufficient recognition in all these developments is the proportion of shoppers that are not attracted to the frictionless service, SCOs or any other such solution. They want to have an interaction with an actual person. This grouping is always stereotyped as being older but people want the human touch for different reasons and it is naïve to assume it is solely down to age.

An interesting survey was undertaken recently in the hospitality industry for Zonal and CGA. Although it found a majority of customers now prefer to use technology in venues compared with a minority pre-pandemic the bulk of this usage is pre-dining involving the likes of booking and enquiries. When people are physically in the venue then three-in-five prefer to place orders and settle bills face-to-face. The reality is that during Covid-19 QR code usage exploded in venues but they have largely disappeared as diners recognise that an enhanced experience comes from dealing with people and not tapping away at a screen.

Clearly technology is going to play an increasingly important role in hospitality just as it is in retail but it should not be forgotten that many customers massively value the human interaction. Retail’s greatest attribute – as highlighted in my role as a judge in the People in Retail Awards – is its people and it would be detrimental to strip out all human interactions In favour of implementing the latest technology.

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