Monday, September 24, 2012

Self-serving surveys

If you believe the hype, shoppers are delighted that supermarkets and big stores are installing more and more self-service checkouts.

The latest survey by the retail industry claims we love the convenience of them – supposedly they’re quicker and we avoid long queues.

The industry would have you believe these dreadful machines are so popular we’ll all want to use them.

Apparently 95 per cent of us have negotiated our way round self-service machines and endured the “unexpected item in the bagging area” nonsense, suggesting the end is nigh for the checkout girls of Britain.

But look at the small print and you discover – even in a survey for The Grocer magazine – 55 per cent of shoppers still prefer dealing with people not machines.

Will our preference for people make any difference? Of course it won’t.

The industry thinks that, as more and more shops leave their tills unmanned and force customers to go self-service, we’ll grow ever-more delighted with the triumph of machine over man.

The giant retailers – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, B&Q and the rest of them – are profit-making enterprises which will do all they can to reduce costs and boost profits.

D-I-Y checkouts mean fewer staff. One employee can supervise four machines.

In theory, that means retailers could axe three-quarters of their checkout staff and still push through as many customers per day as they do now.

I pity the staff at these stores. They have no choice but to help impose checkout machines on their customers.

They have to explain why the scanner won’t work, they have to authorise the sale of alcohol, they have to help when the card machine refuses to accept payment and the computer whines about unexpected items.

They could do all this for us if they were sitting at a till. Instead, they have to brainwash us into thinking this system is somehow a desirable improvement.

And all the time they know the more successful they are in conning us into believing self-service checkouts represent the future of retailing, the more likely it is they will soon be out of work.

The stores and even Usdaw, the shop-workers’ union, claim this is not a cost-cutting exercise. We shall see.

Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, says: “I love self-service checkouts in the same way I love ATMs, ‘pay at the pump’ and airlines’ on-line check-ins. 

“To me they mean efficiency and speed and, as designers continue to make the technologies friendlier, the balance is tipping ever-more firmly in their favour.” 

In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies: “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?” 

Admittedly I am a Luddite. It’s not so much that I mistrust technology, it’s more that I mistrust the people who try to force it on me. 

You know for certain that, whatever the drivel the industry pours over its self-serving self-service checkout initiative, it’s all about cutting costs. 

For years after the banks introduced hole-in-the-wall cash machines, I made a point of walking into the branch with a plain, old-fashioned cheque book and requesting my money in the traditional way, from a girl behind the counter. 

This went on until the day when staff at my local Barclays, less than 100 yards from home, demanded two forms of identification before they would let me have any cash.

I was stunned. A simple cheque guarantee card wasn’t enough any longer. And they knew me anyway – I lived just down the road.

I pointed out that their approach was professional suicide – the more they forced customers to use machines, the fewer bank clerks Barclays would need to employ. 

But that, of course, was the point. The staff at my local Barclays were not to blame. The company had clearly adopted a policy of alienating Luddites and forcing us into line. 

Since then, I have been forced to use a cash-point machine like everyone else. And I admit they are convenient, quick and generally safe. 

But I still resent being made to participate in the banks’ conspiracy to cut costs – especially when they could employ dozens of staff for the price of one crooked speculator’s massive bonus. 

The same pattern is now being followed by big shops. The more D-I-Y checkouts they install, the more difficult and time-wasting it becomes to queue up to deal with a human being. 

That forces us to use the machines whether we want to or not. Now 95 per cent of us have used the infernal things – I’m in the remaining five per cent – it’s only a short step to getting rid of checkout staff completely. 

And if they are so wonderful, why does John Hannett, General Secretary of Usdaw, point out that “self-service checkouts have become another flashpoint that can lead to shop-workers being abused, threatened and even physically assaulted”? 

He says: “Frustrated shoppers experiencing a problem using them can often take out their anger and frustration on the nearest shop-worker and this is both unfair and unacceptable.” 

I decided some time ago to boycott shops with self-service checkouts. But if it carries on like this, I could be starved into submission.

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