Unexpected item in bagging area: When new technology does more harm than good

A Which? consumer survey found that 62% of people hate using self-service checkouts and a further 7% admit to never having tried them but the robot equivalents of stroppy teenagers; unpredictable, far too sensitive and bawling out their favourite insult “unexpected item in the bagging area!”, are becoming more and more popular. One third of shoppers admit to cheating self service tills - have you?

Self Service Checkout

Self-service checkouts are more prevalent than ever before. It has been estimated that in between 2008 and 2014 the number of self-service checkouts would quadruple, totalling 430,000 machines worldwide. NCR, who are the biggest supplier of self-service checkouts, boast on their website that “consumers are more likely to do repeat business with a retailer that provides self-checkout technology” and that the machines “reduce checkout wait times up to 40%”. But is this really the case?

Do these machines really have any benefits for the customers who use them? Or are they contributing to poor working conditions, increased shoplifting and terrible customer service?

Shoplifting is worryingly easy from such machines (or so I have heard). The Daily Mail has gone as far as to say we are now a “nation of self-service shoplifters” suggesting that a third of customers have admitted to stealing when using the machines. Techniques such as pretending to scan products, selecting cheaper items when weighing fruit or vegetables and selecting smaller products when required to enter a size are employed by many customers who think they can cheat the machine and save some money.

Even celebrities are not immune to the kleptomaniac streak that these machines seem to arouse in a third of shoppers. At the beginning of the year television chef, Antony Worrall Thompson was caught stealing from Tesco’s when the security cameras saw him failing to scan cheese and bottles of wine on the self-service checkouts.

While some inevitably do get caught trying to trick the system, it is likely that hundreds get away with it. One blogger spoke to two store managers about customers stealing or underpaying when using self-service checkouts. When it came to customers pretending to scan products she was told by one manager that “If it looks like you’re scanning items correctly and not calling attention to yourself, I probably won’t pay attention to you”. Likewise with the technique of selecting cheaper items she was told “If apples register as apples, I don’t pay attention to the price”.

There is also the potential issue of children being able to purchase age restricted products. In many large supermarkets there is a system put in place which alerts an assistant to come over and verify the customer’s age. This is obviously necessary, but in many cases increases the time spent checking out as the assistant usually has several other self-service checkouts to oversee. However, I have used several checkouts that have not asked for proof of ID for age restricted DVDs and even once bought alcohol in a branch of Co-op that did not verify my age (I should add, I was over 18 at the time). While some may argue that it is the supermarket’s loss if they face a fine for selling age restricted items to children, surely they have some degree of moral responsibility to protect youngsters from these products?

Customer service, it then seems, is completely lost when it comes to self-service checkouts in supermarkets. The only staff you see are those who are rushing around trying to keep the machines in order, if they have to assist you in any way it is normally by simply swiping their own access card over the till to unfreeze the machine, they have no time to provide any form of customer service because they are busy completing the job that was once done by several members of staff.

Self Service Checkout

Paying at a self-service checkout in an ironically named 'express' supermarket is a slower, more frustrating and unpopular way to buy groceries.

Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, back this up with a statement by John Hannett, the General Secretary. He told PostDesk that “the main staffing issue we deal with is trying to ensure shopworkers who supervise them [self-service checkouts] don’t routinely have more than around four to cover at any one time as this can lead to problems.”

He also went on to mention another issue that few have considered as a negative aspect of self-service checkouts, stating that “Unfortunately, self-service checkouts have become another flashpoint that can lead to shopworkers being abused, threatened and even physically assaulted” continuing on to say “…frustrated shoppers experiencing a problem using them can often take out their anger and frustration on the nearest shopworker and this is both unfair and unacceptable”.

Supermarkets will cunningly only open one or two manned checkouts alongside several self-service ones so that it appears a much quicker option to go to an empty self-service machine than to wait in a queue. The fact is though, unless you have only a couple of items, they really aren’t any quicker. There is even a term for this – “wait warping” which one website suggests is the reason the machines are becoming so popular, simply because they “give the impression of faster service” without actually doing so.

And it’s not just supermarkets that are adopting this technology. Shops such as WHSmith and Boots have installed the self-service machines in many of their branches, as have many libraries and now, in my home town, you even have to purchase bus tickets at a machine before boarding. The simplest transaction of buying a bus ticket is now deemed too time consuming for the driver to deal with. We are living in a world where the ideal is to never stop moving or pause for long; time is money after all. Remember the Barclaycard advert with the waterslide? It’s USP of “contactless technology”, which admittedly has many advantages, also manages to perfectly display the lack of human contact possible when making transactions.

In some settings it works. The Oyster card system and train ticket machines have benefitted both customers and business. Large numbers of passengers can pay to travel quickly in an environment where space and time is limited. The technology here is pretty reliable and those using it at the busiest times are often regular travellers, therefore well versed in how to use the machines. At 8am at a busy station I’m happy to admit that machine beats man.

But when it comes to supermarkets, I’m dubious. In fact, rewind sixty years and you’ll realise that we have been self-serving in supermarkets on an even bigger scale. In 1950 the Croydon branch of Sainsbury’s became the first self-serving shop, initially using “hostesses” to guide shoppers around the branch and assist with the modern concept of selecting your own items. Fast forward to 2012, when selecting our own shopping is the norm, can we consider checking it out for ourselves as simply the next step forward? If so, where will it end?

Harry Wallop, the Daily Telegraph’s Retail Editor responded to my tweet on the issue, sharing his views that “They’re invariably a nuisance designed for the convenience of the retailer, not the shopper. What next? Will Tesco force me to stock the shelves myself? The best customer service involves people, not machines”

He then went on to say; “The point is supermarkets love them and it saves them a fortune. But I don’t think any shopper loves them.” This echoes the opinion of Usdaw’s John Hannett with his point that “On the whole we think shoppers much prefer to be served by real people, especially as this can often be much quicker”. 

And that perfectly sums up the issue. So long as shops can get away with using them, they will. While customers keep falling for “wait warping” and opting to use the self-service machines, the shops will continue installing them and reduce the need to recruit staff. It is win win for them and all round a loss for us.