Strange Things in Self-Service

My twitter timeline has been populated recently by photos of retailers doing, for me, some strange things with self-service tills.  These tills have popped up everywhere over the last decade and not always to universal acclaim.  B&Q and WH Smith have often been prime offenders, but there are new culprits on the block.

I can see the point of self-service tills, sometimes, for both the retailer and the consumer.  But, I do feel a balance is needed and there is something positive about good service in a retailer.  I appreciate that the service some consumers want (including me) at some times is best served by a self-service operation. It is the routinisation of that that concerns me. So the almost complete removal of full service checkouts in some large food retailers worries me.  I don’t feel this is a good look and worry where it ends up for retailers and consumers.

In a couple of cases this seems to be combined with a desire to make it difficult to actually get out of the store.  I still don’t follow the rationale for the recent steps in Sainsbury’s, as shown in the photograph below (and I have seen photos of other Sainsbury’s with this as well). What is that all about?

Sainsbury Islington Store Exit Barriers – Photo by @kientan74

And then last weekend I popped into a large Marks & Spencer and found they had removed all the service counters in the clothing and non-food sections.  I was surprised at this further expansion of self-service. My short observation of the tills showed not a single transaction that did not need staff intervention, including my own. 

Clothing self-service till area in Marks and Spencer Edinburgh Gyle

I tweeted that observation and received a very large (for my tweets) and varied response.

Most respondents were against such changes, pointing out the difficulties, the isolating tendencies, issues for those with hidden and/or visible disabilities and generally the feeling that shopping (even paying) needs to be more than this. 

Others pointed out that this was not new and other retailers were doing this and had been for some time. This was combined with an observation though that M&S self service checkouts were amongst the most unreliable in the sector; whether this applied only to food or not was unclear.  My reflection after all this was whether the typical M&S clothes shopper is ready for such impersonal ‘service’.  Time will tell of course (and I do understand the labour and cost saving point) and maybe most people are (resignedly) accepting of what now makes up so much “service”. But if it does not work consistently and seamlessly then consumers will be unhappy and take action accordingly.

Retailers are increasingly polarising into functional and experimental types. Moving to the former lays one open to more direct comparisons on function (including price).  I wonder if unintended consequences will emerge from this rush to automate.  Or maybe I am too nostalgic for service in retailing that actually involves humans? (and I know that too can also be dreadful!)

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Amazon Fresh, Amazon Go, Clothing, Consumers, Customer Service, Employment practices, Experiential, Functional Retailing, Marks and Spencer, Retail Change, Sainsbury, Self-checkout, Self-Scanning, Self-Service, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Strange Things in Self-Service

  1. Pingback: Marks & Spencer slammed for disabled unfriendly self-service checkouts — Retail Technology Innovation Hub - Gear Media

  2. Pingback: Retail technology gone wrong: Marks & Spencer slammed for ... - Retail Technology Innovation Hub - Deep Creek Lake Maryland

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