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Are you being served?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Idiotic idea number 43: The Self Service Checkout.

It’s a phenomenon that contributed to my absolute hatred of Tesco. Abolish the 10 items or less checkouts, replace them with self service ones and save a ton of money by employing less cashiers on your supermarket checkouts.

It’s supposed to be convenient. It’s supposed to minimise fuss and queues. That’s the evil lie that they spin to propagandise us all into using them. The simple truth is it serves only two purposes – reduce the cost to the business of employing checkout operators and increase their margins on their products as this has a pre-figured element to account for the wages of the employee scanning it through the till for you. It’s some scam I tell ya.

My issues with this are manifold. First off the bat, I spend my days serving other people in shops. This automatically predisposes me to resent having to put my own shopping through the till. Especially as I get paid to do it at work but am actually paying the supermarket to put my own shopping through the till. Highly offensive. In fact this is probably my biggest complaint about the whole charade. If I got a couple of percent off the cost of my shopping for doing it I would be quite happy to rattle it through myself, in fact I would go out of my way to do so, but at the back of my mind is the thought that by doing the retailer’s job for them not only am I saving them money but I’m working for free.

Furthermore, it’s not any quicker. Have you ever used one? I’m pretty quick on a till. I should be, I’ve been using the damn things for half my life (that’s 15 years by the way) and take great pride in my transactions per minute. Setting modesty aside for a moment I am a till operating weapon. So you would think that putting my own shopping would be a breeze right? Right? Wrong.

The technology is a little bit hit and miss. Things don’t always register properly. “Unrecognised item in the bagging area” messages became incendiary incitements to riot after the third or fourth one. It’s not like a machine can deliberately accuse you of stealing but accuse you it does. Then you have to wait to get security tags removed, get your age verified for various products and before you know it you would have been better waiting in the massive queue for the proper checkouts. Happy days. Oh yeah, and don’t forget this is technically costing you more money.

These are the obstacles facing the seasoned till operator. These are insignificant compared to the challenges facing the novice.

Today I observed a woman spend a whole minute and a half scanning the price label on the front of a dvd over the laser beam before she realised that she would have to scan the barcode. There is a strong argument to suggest she failed to exercise the most basic of common sense but I find it difficult to lay the blame entirely at her door. After all, she is paying for a professional to carry out this task for her, a task she clearly lacked the experience to perform efficiently. Instead she has been coerced into taking on the responsibility herself. Having worked with the public for a very long time I am extremely aware that a lot of people are intimidated by what seem on the face of it very straightforward and simple things and so for some the process of scanning their own shopping is less of a new and enticing way to shop and more of a Guantanamo style exercise in torture. I know I’d rather be waterboarded for an afternoon than stand in a queue behind six or seven untrained, inexperienced civilians fumbling with a self service checkout. At least it would be over more quickly.

It’s all just so frustrating. We used to be a nation of shop keepers. We used to understand and appreciate service. Within the next ten years we will be a nation of vending machines. I suspect part of the problem is that people think they know better these days. The don’t think they need expert knowledge. They have access to Google. That’s all you need after all. Wikipedia holds the answers. Who needs a decade and a half of experience in a particular field. Just look it up on the internet. This is a particular issue in the frequently underestimated field of retail. Yes it is technically a very simple job. But it is made more complex by the vast array of human responses to the slightest of stimuli. There are subtleties and nuances in customer service. There are judgement calls you have to make and can only really make with a deep enough back catalogue of similar scenarios to call upon.

Machines cannot do this. They have to treat everybody the same. It’s in their programming. They can’t tell if you are an accomplished till operator or a total novice. They don’t care. They can’t work from an opening gambit of “I heard this song the other day I can’t remember what it was called do you have it?” to a completed sale of the exact song the customer was looking for. Behind every till there should be a skilled operator. If there was a viable third choice of supermarket in Inverness, I would be using it right now on the condition that they didn’t have self service checkouts.

It’s just not right.

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