If This is the Future of Shopping, Heaven Help Us!

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If your summer travel plans bring you to Grand Rapids, Michigan, you must visit the International Retail Cashier Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s loaded with stories and memorabilia about cashiers who changed the course of history:

Dwight “Bucky” Henderson, the Home Depot cashier who single-handedly completed 422 sales in the hours leading up to Hurricane Katrina—and was credited with saving New Orleans from more catastrophic damage.

Ivana Buloskova, who in the ’70’s, shared sensitive soviet military secrets with the US by secretly embedding code numbers into the prices she charged at her point-of-sale terminal at the Moscow airport.

Manny Vitucci, the Yankee Stadium cashier who became a lifelong friend of Babe Ruth after selling him a hot dog, and refusing the baseball star’s offer to keep the change.

If you’ve already searched for this museum online, plan on visiting the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum instead. You see, the International Retail Cashier Hall of Fame and Museum doesn’t exist. And that’s just the point. Millions of cashiers, billions of transactions, and an equal number of robotically-sincere questions such as, “did you find everything you’re looking for today?” Cashiers. Always there, always pleasant (well, almost always), and not one stinking shrine to honor the heroes!

It isn’t fair, but to bean counters and investors, the hard-working cashier—or Associate—is an operational boat anchor. Salaries and Expenses for Direct Retail Operations. Squish! Ooooooh. Messy, but who needs the expenses when there’s so little “value add.”

So in the spirit of financial pragmatism and technological exuberance, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on May 18th, Check out the Future of Shopping. The article extols the benefits of equipping shoppers with handheld scanning devices. “Retail experts predict the new retail gizmos could eventually bring about the end of traditional cash registers . . . if the technology takes off, it could become a new opportunity for stores to shrink payrolls. For now, though, most say they see it as an opportunity to free up workers to provide more customer service.”

Puh-leeze! When was the last time someone else cleaned your windshield when you filled up with self-serve gas? As Victor Hugo said, “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” He might be right. But is The Idea about cutting costs, or improving service? Who benefits? And, given the state of today’s supporting technology, has the time really come?

I’ve used a self-checkout system called Scan It at my local Giant Food Store in Virginia for over a year, and as one who loves bar code and RFID technology, I’m ambivalent. The first time I used the system was a watershed experience because for the first time, I completed a grocery run without speaking to one store employee. Not one! In-the-store to out-the-door, without even one acknowledging head nod or “how are you?” That alone makes this technological development hugely remarkable. After years of chipping, chipping, chipping away, technology-enabled human will has finally pushed the retail cashier to the brink of extinction. Good riddance!

Is that the idea whose time has come? Grocery-store-as-gas-station or automat, with all the commoditization that comes with it? I’m no techno-phobe, but I’m not ready. Then again, I don’t own any stock in Giant’s parent, Ahold.

When you enter the Giant Food Store, you’ll find a rack of Scan It handheld devices. You unlock one by scanning the bar code on your shopper loyalty card. Using Scan It doesn’t require advanced training in cashiering, but as you already know, I’m not as bullish about The Workflow or Customer Experience as The Wall Street Journal and Giant. In deploying Scan It, Giant has made some quirky assumptions that make the experience profoundly un-fun.

1. Most customers are not foodies. They’re not search experts, either. Do you love organic, wrinkled, red-leaf chard? Go ahead, print a label for the fresh bunch you carefully placed in your produce bag. You have to print your own bar code label, otherwise you can’t buy it with Scan It! Drill through the Produce Menu on the store’s scale-side label printer. Make sure you select “organic,” not regular. So far, so good. Now—wrinkled red-leaf, not multi-color, and not green. If after five minutes you haven’t shredded the chard bag in disgust, print the label, and move to item #2 on your shopping list.

2. Consumers aren’t sponges for gratuitous promotions and product pitches. Giant’s Master Price Special Algorithm causes your Scan It to produce a harsh “ka-ching!” every few minutes. When that happens, grab the device and look at the display. You’ll see tantalizing, must-have price specials for Green Giant canned green beans (a product I’ve never bought) or Heinz bar-b-que sauce (I’m a vegetarian). I ignore Giant’s incessant Scan It promotions because I quickly learned they’re an annoyance I must tolerate to use Scan It.

3. Even kindly Scan It customers become red-faced mad if they have to wait behind other customers. You’re kindly, right? Try it for yourself. Load up on groceries. Diligently scan every one with your Scan It. Now, look at your watch. Eeks! Ryan’s soccer practice begins in ten minutes! No worries, though, because all your pending purchases are secure in your Scan It. Just a quick swipe of your credit card, and you’ll be in the parking lot, and on your way!

But you’re wrong. There are no dedicated Scan It checkout lanes. You must use the self-checkout lanes, and each has a queue. (You can also use any of the cashier-assisted lanes, but what’s the point?) The blinking lights positioned high over the registers inform you that customers in two of those lanes are waiting for assistance. You seethe, and they wait for a manager while half-interestedly thumbing through the latest copy of People. Whoever designed Scan It clearly never intended to use it in a hurry. Ryan’s coach will understand.

4. Customers buy. Process engineers follow steps. When you’re feeling a little mischievous, try this with your Scan It: scan your loyalty card before you scan the end-of-order bar code at the register. You won’t hear that reassuring confirming beep, and you won’t be rewarded with an electronic “thank you.” You just scanned the codes in the wrong order! Oops. And don’t look for the “back arrow.” You won’t find it. Hard stop! You’re dead in the water.

I hope I didn’t hear you say a bad word, because you did the same thing on last week’s grocery run! That’s why a store employee—probably a cashier—had to hand write the instruction scan this first! in pen under the proper bar code so you would be spared the agony of waiting for a cashier to fix the problem.

5. When you’re done, you’re still not done. You can’t leave the store just yet, because all of your purchases are waiting for you at the end of the grocery belt, piled in disarray, ready for you to bag. Giant thoughtfully eliminated baggers from all self-checkout lines. Have hope, though. Maybe Giant will reinstate bagging as part of the improved customer service mentioned in The Wall Street Journal article. Don’t look for an International Grocery Baggers Hall of Fame in the near future, either.

Is the adoption of self-service retail technology a reflection of what customers need and want, or what businesses need and want? Is it both? An interesting discussion for over a beer. No argument that self-service in retail portends cool new capabilities and experiences. Whether they’re improvements depends on your viewpoint. Despite the customer aggravation, I hope that companies keep innovating! After all, phasing out an entire category of workers doesn’t happen overnight.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I am not familiar with Scan-It!, but the local outlets of a grocery store and a national drug store chain now feature self check-out lanes. I have had very few experiences at either store that have not required the assistance of an extremely bored “customer service” representative whose presence is required to swipe a card and punch buttons to override the register. Is it fast? No. I am unable to scan multiples of the same item, but must scan every piece into the machine separately, which can be lengthy when I buy large quantities of items such as cans of cat food. Coupons are hit and miss and nearly always require the assistance of the surly employee. Grocery stores are more challenging than the drug store, as I have to look up each item of produce that does not feature a coded sticker. The limited code choices built into the register seldom contain the items I hope to purchase, once again requiring the “services” of the surly employee. Unfortunately, I view this as the future of shopping as chain stores seek to reduce overhead. However, this will likely provide the opportunity for smaller, local retailers to shine by providing a friendly and competent employee to talk to during check-out.

  2. Andrew,
    I am in agreement with your closing statement that “Innovation is critical”. Phasing out of workers doesn’t have to be a result. Bar code technology is not new but it is evolving. Retail grocery is making some strides but at least putting the model into the marketplace. I would imagine that feedback and adjustments to these new processes are taking place. As a process engineer, I don’t think the goal in cost reduction, efficiency, and customer satisfaction does not have to result in employee elimination. My experience with grocery store cashiers is that they work multiple tasks. Customer service, customer assistance, stocking shelfs etc. From personal experience, the grocery store check out lines are at best a consumers worst enemy, particularly during holidays and major televised sports events. I have used the quick checkout scanning with success when I have few items and want to get out fast. The technology and processes will get there. Stores like Home Depot have good quick scan checkout processes which involve a customer service type, scanner knowlegable type right there in the area full time. What grocery stores are lacking greatly in my opinion is customer service assistance. Ever try to find a particular item and cannot find even one person on the floor to help you? These check out cashiers are knowledgeable at this and some better than the people that are supposed to be doing the job. A good process redesign can always incorporate re-utlizing many if not all displaced employees to fill gaps that enhance the stores ability to provide better customer service. Something that I truly find in great decline in my shopping experiences. Technology is not going away. Those who fail to utilize it will find themselves out of business.

  3. You eloquently stated what I was trying to lead up to. Thanks for clarification. I truly agree with you that retailers are barely at the infancy stage of adapting the technology. And I don’t know what the business drivers really are for grocery chains and the like.

    As I pointed out from my own experience, the small order customer is the potential target. Maybe they are just trying to get rid of the quick check lines.

    And I as do you don’t perceive a shift in customer service presence but it sure be nice. Spending 15 minutes trying to find a single item is a chore. “Food” for thought, pardon the pun.

    It would be quite interesting to see comments from retail executives who may be in a position to shed light for the rest of us in other industries or in education.

  4. I’d be the last one to stifle anyone’s effort to innovate, and I’d be down on the field cheering retail innovators on, pom poms and all, if (big IF) I believed their motives were truly directed toward improved customer experience. But they’re not. Along with eliminating cashiers, self-checkouts eliminated other conveniences, like grocery bagging. And although I don’t do headcounts when I shop for groceries, I haven’t perceived an increased presence of “aisle roamers” to ask me if I can find everything I’m looking for. There are no re-purposed cashiers to take my groceries to my car in the pouring rain. There are many customer service needs in the supermarket that already aren’t being met. Why haven’t consumers seen new or better services in tandem with self-service, instead of just seeing less service. Maybe I’m jaded.

    Please chime in if you think I’ve been working with those odd few companies that don’t really get it. Otherwise, I’m prone to extrapolate my anecdotal evidence over the broader spectrum of corporate decision making. Cost reduction initiatives garner excitement that’s near Pavlovian. This is why, as Alexis points out, that much of what we see in retail automation has such poor usability. The self-checkout lanes at Giant Food and other retailers would make Rube Goldberg or Dr. Suess proud, for all their cobbled together whimsey and interfaces. If I were a fly on the wall, I might hear “sure it’s a complicated jumble of machines and wires, but customers will figure it out. If they can’t, they can use “full service” checkout!” Which explains why many self-checkout lanes still require “adult supervision” to make sure consumers are doing the right thing. It’s an an odd, mixed message for cashiers: “while we’re automating your jobs into oblivion, you are still essential for keeping all this poorly integrated and badly engineered componentry working–for now.” Did retail executives rush all this self-service stuff out before it was well tested? Sure looks that way to me!

    What’s totally counter-intuitive about all of this is that the customers who benefit the most from self-service technology are the ones who arguably are the smallest revenue producers–the small order customers who purchase $20 or less. They can often get in and out quickly. The customer who spends $200 and higher on a grocery run still lags in terms of benefitting from the automation. It would be great to know why retailers don’t focus their innovation and efficiency efforts toward attracting these customers to the store, getting them checked out quickly and efficiently, and for bringing them back.

  5. If we all remember the days when credit cards were born to replace cash and ATM’s were introduced to replace bank tellers – the appearance of self-check-out lines and self-shopping gadgetry will seem familiar. Now in infancy, these “systems” have much to be desired – even though developed decades after technology has supposedly matured. Imagine the pressure on store executives to cut labor expenses that they have now allowed their customers to become “guinea pigs” running this new maze of contradictions. A lover of technology and innovation, I have found no benefits for me in these CT-scan-like experiences except when I have less than three items to purchase. Even then, it has taken me three of four abortive runs through the process to “get it” so now I can successfully navigate the machines with one pass. In their present state – most of the systems are a joke. And, from the almost universal rejection of them by shoppers I see – even when lines are obvious at human cashier stations – the projects are slow to be accepted. In their current state, they represent a huge capital expense (that can’t do much to reduce overhead) while reducing customer service by killing off human-manned check-out lines – making waits in those remaining longer for most. The whole thing is a design conceived of contradictions – trying to follow the current retail model with a Rube-Goldberg-like contraption at the end of the shopping process – rather than redesigning the entire process altogether. We might someday see a “smart-cart” that totals the bill as items are added with a card swipe and bag dispenser built-in that when pushed out of the store rings up the final transaction – without a moment of going through the gauntlet of the present technology – but until then, we aren’t there and the cashier’s jobs are secure – at least for this shopper. Thanks for pointing out the obvious in your article – in its current state, this is an experiment in shopping whose time has not come.

  6. The popularity of Wal-Mart and Home Depot shows that low prices are important to some consumers. Self-service is one way to accomplish that.

    I too am skeptical that stores will redeploy workers from the checkstands to help customers in the store. More likely they’ll pocket the extra profits from cutting payroll.

    But despite some fumbling first steps, I think consumer check-out will catch on the same way that ATMs and self-service gas stations did. Technology will be improved and processes will get smoothed out. But equally important, consumers will gain experience and accept the new process as normal — like grocery shoppers in Germany accept bagging their own purchases as no big deal.

    I’ve had a few experiences with self checkout at Home Depot. The first one was awful, but gradually I got the hang of it, and now I’ll use it with no problem if I’ve got a few easily scanned items.

    The next few years will be tricky as stores try new ideas that impact cost and the customer experience. As much as we like to talk about experience, we can’t ignore pressures to reduce costs too.

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