Sunday, 18 July 2010

service, or lack thereof

a bit of a frivolous post for a sunday evening, or maybe not. i object to the self-service checkout thingies in supermarkets. our local new world has it, pak'n'save mill st are soon to bring them in, if they haven't already. and i seriously hate them.

aside from the fact that it's a loss of jobs, it's more the principle of the thing. the people who use self-service checkouts are saving the supermarket the wage cost of a checkout operator. so do they get a discount on their groceries if they use the self-serve? or do all shoppers have a slightly lower grocery bill because the supermarket is saving on labour costs?

oh no. not only does the customer have to do the extra work of scanning & packing their own groceries, but the supermarket gets to pocket the economic benefit of that work. morons.


Flynn said...

Personally, I love those, and go out of my way to use them. I saw them in the Uk a year and a half ago and was delighted when they made it over here - but i can also assure you that all those places with self-check machines still had far, far, more staff on checkouts.

Plus they need one or two people to keep an eye on the machines and the people move through them a bit slower, probably.

It's like library self-checks - they may have made a little less work for staff, but there's always problems or other work or enough people who won't or can't use them that it doesn't really make a difference to staffing levels.

Hugh said...

I dunno, Flynn. While I don't share Stargazer's dislike of the machines personally, I doubt the supermarkets are introducing them purely out of goodwill towards their customers - I'm pretty sure that reducing staff levels is their goal.

OTOH, if we object to everything that reduces staff levels (and thus reduces jobs) we should probably be complaining about electronic checkout scanners - there'd be more jobs in it if they just sent somebody to run and check the price on every item!

My flatmate, who recently moved here from the Bay Area, said that his local supermarkets had trialled them but they proved unpopular with customers - because, as Stargazer says, we the customers are doing more work for no benefit to ourselves (except for maybe getting out of the supermarket faster). So this experiment may not prove durable (or it may - maybe our shoppers are less bolshie than their Californian counterparts)

Interestingly they only just began to appear here in Wellington this year, but have been in ChCh since at least August last year. Are they a new appearance for you, Stargazer? (I presume you're still based in Hamilton?)

Lucy said...

We've had them in Pak'n'saves in Christchurch for well over a year now, and they're a very mixed blessing. As a way to get shoppers with one or two items through quickly, they're fine, and they use pretty much the same number of staff overseeing them and fixing mix-ups as they would have had on express lanes.

Otherwise...our particular local supermarket tends to leave *only* the self-serve checkouts open in the late evenings - maybe one checkout operator if you're lucky - and that's a real bugger, because if there's a bunch of people doing a full shop the system grinds to a halt entirely. Other times there'll be two or three people on checkout, ame deal - they're clearly using it to reduce staff.

And this is a problem, becaue shoppers are simply not as fast or efficient as trained operators, and often much slower - so even with quite a few machines it can increase queue times hugely, not to mention stress for people doing a big shop. Because my husband happens to have been a trained operator at one point we can get through fairly quickly, but a lot of people can't. The machine shuts down and calls for a staff member if it thinks the weight is incorrect, or you move something at the wrong time, or you have alcohol. And because they only have two or three people overseeing many more machines, it can take a loooooong time for someone to notice you need help. It's just really inefficient.

So, in summary: absolutely fine if restricted to express lane numbers of items, but they aren't, and it doesn't work.

Cat said...

It works really well at the train station New World in Wellington, because most people are just buying a few things. They always have at least one staffed checkout open, but generally I've found the self checkouts to be much faster.

Anonymous said...

If checkout workers weren't forced to engage in "how's your day" "have a nice day" stuff, I'd prefer them to the machines. But I like the machines because they don't do that. Which makes me fear the inevitable day they do: i.e. I fully expect the machines to eventually be programmed to utter all that inane insincere customer service shlock. Does anyone know what the workers thing of the self-serve checkouts?

stargazer said...

@hugh, i think the local new world has had them for quite a few months now. they will be new to the pak'n'save when they go in. i've been annoyed by them ever since i've seen them, though only managed to put my thoughts down now.

i think i'm persuaded by the notion of limiting them to those buying only a few items. as to chatting with checkout operators, i actually enjoy it most days - i like the human interaction.

LadyNews said...

I suppose my perspective on these is slightly unique, given that I worked the supermarket checkout beat for almost three years. The place I worked introduced some self-service checkouts after I had been there for about two and a half years, and they didn't replace any of the old checkouts, but were an extra 9 or so on top of the old ones. They tend to train more 'experienced' staff (ones who had been there a while) to manage and supervise them (mostly "loss prevention"- stopping people from abusing the system), and I was one of the lucky people picked, woohoo. It was generally much better than working a regular checkout. The effect they had, and still have, on the supermarket I worked in, is that once people got used to them, they actually become a draw for people to shop there because a lot of people (especially in busy central shops that get lunch or post-work rushes) want to get in and out quickly, or don't want to feel pressure to make conversation. Additionally, in the same sized space that would fit two express lanes, my workplace had 9 or 10 self-service lanes, so lines were much shorter or much quicker (after the initial teething period...).

So, introducing them was not (for the place I worked) so much about reducing staff, as they still hired quite a few people to replace ones who would then work self-service, but wasn't exactly out of goodwill to customers: it was mostly about having something desireable (more checkouts, shorter lines, no interaction, etc) that would please customers, but with the actual endgoal of converting more customers to repeat shoppers there.

Personally, I do prefer the self-service checkouts; maybe because I spent so much time teaching other people to use them that I tend to be able to use them myself without thinking about it and find it quicker. When I do have to shop somewhere without them, and end up in a long post-work queue for an express lane, I always think about how self-service checkouts would speed it up a lot.

They are meant to only be for express lane numbers of items (so, as little as 12, or maybe up to 20, depending on where you are), but I would frequently deal with people who refused to see how trying to use a self-service checkout (with not much space to put things) for the large trolley wasn't going to make it any quicker than waiting in line for an operator who would probably be quite quick (even big trolley loads are fairly quick to scan through, if you have had some practice). And they would often be quite abusive about it.

@Anonymous: the people I worked with actually all liked these checkouts a lot (working on them and using them as a customer), and, like me, expressed a preference for using them over a standard checkout (as a customer). The only time they ever sucked, from a worker's persepctive, was when you were working on them with a person/people who thought it meant they could slack off, therefore creating more work for the others. But that was more of a case of some people being able to get away with doing very little work, which was more about the dynamics of my particular workplace than the actual checkouts! Another part of the appeal of these, which is very specific to someone who works in a supermarket, is that when you shop in a place you work/worked in, you generally know all the checkout staff and sometimes don't want to/have time to have an extended conversation with your checkout person, so being able to slip through the self-service lanes is a very good thing!

Carol said...

I have used the self-service checkouts for a small amount of items. They're OK, but I often have had to look for help because something didn't work properly, or I didn't do it right.

I do think it's a good idea to check how the check-out operators feel about it. If people decide it's not a good way to go, it probably would be easy to disrupt it by deliberately doing things in the self-check-out process, that constantly require the help from a supervisor.

I don't think the comparison with library self check-outs can be taken too far, Flynn. There's not a profit motive there (unless Rodney is let lose on the system, anyway). And the extension of this (already implemented in the US) should mean staff are more available to interact with customers, help them look for stuff etc.

In US library systems, you can check-out a whole pile of books at the same moment.

katy said...

I heard someone being interviewed on National Radio about this recently, he was like some international supermarket guru. It might have been that Saturday afternoon show? Kind of fascinating to hear the "theory" behind it all, the way that they try and balance keeping customers happy with keeping costs down.

Anyway, a better analogy than the library one would be the banks, wouldn't it, and the move towards letting customers do more for themselves online?

We had a nice encounter with a checkout operator last evening. She worked out my husband was Japanese and tried out the words she knew on him. In the spirit of reciprocity we then tried out our Chinese on her. It was a nice bonding activity.

stargazer said...

Anyway, a better analogy than the library one would be the banks, wouldn't it, and the move towards letting customers do more for themselves online?

actually yes, that's quite a good one. and have bank fees and charges been dropping as we, the customer, do more of the work for ourselves? my sense is that they have not. again, the banks are getting the economic benefit of our work, and it just doesn't seem right to me.

Hugh said...

Some friends of mine who've worked checkout have said that sometimes they hate customers who try to chat to them - I guess to we customers, a touch of human interaction can be fun, but to the checkout people, faced with hearing inane comments about the weather or current specials on chocolate biscuits fifty or sixty times a night, they'd prefer a respectful silence. I try to let the operator's attitude guide me.

Interesting what people say about them being intended to only deal with express lane numbers of items. In my local supermarket the staff actively guided everybody, no matter how much stuff they had, into the self-service lanes, but that may have just been a missionary zeal to get people using them.

Hugh said...

Stargazer, to look at it another way (and I'm pretty sure the banks and supermarkets look at it this way), they've invested the not-inconsiderable capital sum in obtaining and installing these machines (be they ATMs or self check-out machines), and they're entitled to a return on their investment. If they passed all the savings on to their customers, they'd be spending money and getting nothing back, which would be unfair to them.

stargazer said...

yes, but they're not passing on any of the savings - particularly not banks, not that i'm aware of. i'm sure that ATMs fixed costs have been paid for a long time back, and out of savings from reduced staff costs & reduced number of branches. ditto for internet banking. so why does the customer have to pay twice?

as to the self-service checkouts, how much more do they cost than a normal checkout? they don't have the conveyor belt thingies, no cash register, or staff seating. i don't buy that it's a higher cost at all, especially if they were replacing them anyway - which is the case for both the mill st pak'n'save and for the new world, the former going through a major capital restruction, and the latter being rebuilt from scratch.

ScubaNurse said...

From a public health perspective... If you are sick and need orange juice, panadol and throat lozenges, you can check yourself out quickly without human contact, and as long as everyone uses hand sanitiser after contact with the machines, we may be able to lower risk of person to person transfer by not spluttering all over the poor checkout person.

Sandra - too heavy to stand on a soapbox, but undeterred said...

Perhaps I buy all the wrong things. Those self-service cheackouts induce such rage in me that I prefer to wait for an operator unless I have only one thing. Alcohol needs checking; children leaning on them or touching any of it (yes, my own sprogs!) buggers it up, reduced price dairy and meat requires a check, the weighing function dysfunctions rather frequently...

Anonymous said...

I really like them. I think it's partially because the lines are shorter, but also I find it quite a satisfying experience. Plus I'm a bit antisocial.

In US library systems, you can check-out a whole pile of books at the same moment.

Oddly, you can do that in Rotorua too. ;)

Boganette said...

I use the self-service checkouts for all my shopping because I have to know how much I'm spending while I shop and I'm shit at maths.

It's perfect for me because I no longer have a mini nervous breakdown everytime I get the cost of my shopping at the checkout and it's faster so I can get out of the hell-hole that is Pak n Save quicker than I would if I was getting my items checked through.

I loathe grocery shopping - it's the most depressing activity on Earth. Anything that makes it easier and helps me budget is a good thing in my book.

Lucy said...

Some friends of mine who've worked checkout have said that sometimes they hate customers who try to chat to them - I guess to we customers, a touch of human interaction can be fun, but to the checkout people, faced with hearing inane comments about the weather or current specials on chocolate biscuits fifty or sixty times a night, they'd prefer a respectful silence. I try to let the operator's attitude guide me.

When I was working retail, a little small talk was OK, but some people took it to creepy levels - once it's got up to the question "and what university do you want to do your graduate work at?" we have officially moved beyond appropriate small talk into Things That Are Not Your Business. Sometimes it took stating something to this effect to get them to stop.

Anonymous said...

I love the self-check machines too. I hate the forced "How's your day been?" etc. I'll happily make conversation at the library because I know all the librarians, I'm there so often. But there are so many supermarket workers that I'm not familiar with any of them. I hate forced conversation with strangers, especially when I'm tired or depressed, it's so much effort for an introvert.
Plus I can imagine they (the machines) are great for people who are a bit embarrassed about what they're buying (condoms, lube, etc or just a whole bunch of junk food - when you're a bit depressed and stocking up on chocolate for a lonely weekend).

Hugh said...

Stargazer, you have a good point re: the cost not necessarily being higher. Obviously replacing an existing machine is a big cost but the machines themselves may not be more expensive. Absent any further information we might have to flag this - it's been great getting contributions from people who've worked in self service checkouts but sadly I think the odds of getting information from people who make the machines is not high.

It seems that opinion is mixed concerning the utility of the machines - some like them, some don't, some like them in specific circumstances and some don't. Perhaps the best solution is for supermarkets to continue to provide both.

Cat said...

Thought about costs, is that while it might not make the prices cheaper, employing slightly less staff might also delay a price *increase*.

Similar for libraries - while they're not out to make a profit, smaller queues mean less staff required, and so they're saving money (well, potentially)

katy said...

In terms of costs, in the retail banks it would be interesting to know how much less they spend on staff now that they don't need as many tellers. A big difference in banks is that now there are larger numbers of staff in back offices rather than branches because human labour is still required though in different places. In a supermarket I wonder what proportion of staff are actually working on the checkouts. As significant (maybe more) is when they close delis/bakeries/ butcheries/reduce the amount of fresh food sold because this is what has the smallest profit margins whereas long-lasting food and toiletries and alcohol have the greatest margins. In general profit has been growing at a significantly greater rate than the cost of labour for many years so it is clear that savings aren't being passed on to customers!

Irony Maiden said...

Yeah but it's so easy to steal if you use them. So, so easy.

Anonymous said...

I like the machines. Although the loss of jobs did cross my mind, in general I'm against jobs that don't require creativity. I think it's a waste of human potential. I think those jobs should be automated. Also, I find the machines to be faster than the operators (often true even when including queueing time). And like someone above mentioned.. no 'hi how are you' etc.

stargazer said...

i certainly don't think self-service checkouts should be removed or banned in any way. but i do think people who use them should get a discount on their grocery bill, say 2% off the total cost of their bill. it's only fair.

Maia said...

I'm a massive fan of self-service check-outs myself. Both the shorter queues and the general

However, I would feel icky using them if they contained a discount. Self-service checkouts are much less physically accessible than non self=service checkouts. I think there are enough disability taxes in society as it is, without calling for more.

Anonymous said...

Q: what job should be automated in supermarkets?

A: C.E.O. because they're not human.


Anonymous said...

I think a lot of the appeal it that people think it is progress, they are superior to the people who don't use it.

Guess what, progress is nothing but a sales pitch, 99% of pointless inventions like this are destroying the planet. It would be far better to do it simply socially& organicallly, that is by humans instead there's this pointless expensive multinational peice of pollution/trash.
Cheers, farmers market & self-sufficieny for me! Wake up corporate drones!