Customer service, self-service or poor service? Take your pick

Self-service has been around for decades in virtually all areas of the retail sector. As retailers continuously seek to reduce costs, speed up operations and generally become more efficient, self-service presents an attractive option. It reduces the need for as many personnel to man the outlet. It empowers customers to proactively select and process payment for their purchases. In the case of the latter, self-service checkouts address this aspect of shopping and have been around since the end of the last century: that’s still only sixteen years ago!

On the face of it, what’s not to like about such technology? However the reality may be different. A couple of weeks ago I wanted to purchase a couple of magazines in W.H. Smith at Glasgow Airport. I went to pay but saw no one manning the tills. On closer inspection I saw about eight self-service checkout “thingies”. All of them were in use. Some had queues of three to four people. I saw some people using them comfortably. Others however looked puzzled and frazzled by the experience. I was a fully paid-up member of this latter category.

I am a self-confessed technophobe and immediately looked around for someone to help. I eventually spied an employee who came over to me. His first action was to ask for my boarding pass. After reading about the controversy over this a few months ago, I refused and asked him what it was required for. With practised ease he informed me that it had nothing to do with saving money on taxes but all to do with “collecting information on shopper’s habits so that “we can sell products that are relevant”. I looked at him cynically. He looked at me in the same way! He processed the payment on my behalf, sending a strong signal that he thought I was somewhat retarded.

My point of this anecdote? I found it difficult to see any material benefit to the shopper in this exercise? Even people who had no problem in using the technology still took as much if not more time processing the payment as if they had to deal with a manned till. People still had to queue for these checkouts. Some, like me, found it to be a frustrating experience. In one or two cases, I noticed that the technology had difficulty processing notes and in one or two cases, kept on returning the currency note in question to the shopper.

No doubt, retailers will tell us that shoppers will get used to the technology and in time it will become “second nature” to them. No doubt also, technology will continue to improve and will reduce the “wrinkles” associated with inaccurate scanning of data or rejection of currency notes.

No doubt also, the retailers will make some efficiency savings as a consequence of reducing and perhaps eventually eliminating manned tills and checkout staff.

In an era of ever-increasing use of technology and technology convergence, I could be accused of being an idealist or “dreamer” if I was to suggest that we reverse this trend and hark back to the days when such staff were there to deal with this mundane aspect of shopping.

That said, I left the W.H. Smith outlet questioning whether any benefits that existed lay fully with the retailer and not the shopper. Indeed with the problems that were encountered by some of the shoppers and the need to call on a staff member to deal with the payments, hinted at the possibility that for the present at any rate, the customer service costs may be higher than originally anticipated. Personally I would like to see the option of having one checkout which was manned by an operative in that situation.

Despite my cynicism and frustrations, I recognise that this technology is here to stay.

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