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.