Friday, April 18, 2008

Eat your words. Digitally, that is.

How far should self-service electronic checkout go? Most people I talk to complain about self check registers at the supermarket. I’m often in agreement. My first suggestion: give these machines a better voice! IBM, NCR, other self checkout manufacturers, why not have George Clooney asking me how many mangoes are in the bag? Another suggestion: often, when the conveyor belt fills up slightly the faceless voice instructs you to stop scanning items and fill your bags. In these cases, give us more than two seconds to actually get it done before asking "If you are done scanning items, please pay!" The machine may be super-human, but it takes me a little while to get my items bagged.

Now, I know what you’re saying: Annie, it's a computer voice. You can ignore it. But the technology itself is not at fault here. It's being rushed and herded needlessly that ruins the retail experience, at the command of its manufacturers, probably at the request of their customers. These companies might do well to remember the difference between efficiency for consumers’ convenience and efficiency for their profit, though.

Because I’m a social scientist at heart, I turn my supermarket trips into research opportunities. Every time I’ve observed the self-checkouts, I see at least two flashing help lights out of five open registers, with customers waiting for the floor manager to key in a missed product code. At the same time, I also see workers hovering, often at the end of the conveyor belt, waiting to help bag or get carts. What does this tells us? Supermarket executives have yet to figure out how real and digital workers fit together.

Here’s an example: It’s a quiet Tuesday morning in my local supermarket: just me and the senior citizen crowd (my favorite informal market research group -- understudied and gregarious, what more could you ask for?) There were a lot of supermarket workers standing around. I hate having to continually explain my bag preference (reusable supermarket bags and as few store bags as possible), so I choose the self -service checkout. So what happens? I’ve got two items scanned, haven’t even been pestered by the digital voice yet, and a supermarket worker arrives and begins bagging my groceries in what I have now come to call “Pittsburgh Style” – one item per plastic bag, no matter how small. So much for my reduced carbon footprint.

Most people adapt to and accept self-service kiosks. ATMs are a prime example. The only time I need a bank teller is when I have a transaction that’s too complex for the ATM. And amazingly, bank tellers are often some of the nicest and most helpful service employees in the pantheon of service economy personnel. When I go into the bank, I truly want their help. But most of the time, self-service banking is a minimally involved task. (You put in the card, you get money, you check your balance, or, if you’re lucky, you make a deposit.)

Checking out at the grocery is an entirely different story. As in many retail contexts, people have more complex needs. I am amazed at the array of vegetable and fruit choices displayed on the monitor – even so, this is, indeed, where most people get waylaid on the road to self service self sufficiency. We know what we’re buying – but does the machine categorize it in any way remotely similar to our lexicon of edible greens? Are those JUMBO navel oranges or MEDIUM ones? Are green beans under G for green or B for beans?

A new market survey shows that consumers are so accustomed to banking through ATMs that they’re frustrated when not available. Now, take this survey with a grain of self-serving self-service salt (because the survey’s sponsor was NCS, who makes the systems.) Another research note: keep in mind that the survey was done on-line, which means the sample is already skewed in the direction of technology-capable individuals. None of my informal 70 – 80 year old market research group friends are comfortable with ATMs. Indeed, some of them were quite adept at online banking, but they limited their use of ATMs, citing concerns about safety and ability to follow directions. With a large portion of the American population heading into the AARP demographic, digital technology companies should design self-service interfaces in secure environments that give older people more time, offers better readability, and provides service options with greater clarity.

Having read this, I wonder when (or if) people will come to regard self checkout systems as a supermarket necessity, as ATMs have become to banks. I know we're not there yet. The grocers, it seems, are having a hard time determining when consumers want flesh and blood help as a side dish or a main course.

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1 comment:

rbyers said...

Self-checkouts at grocery stores can be annoying, true, especially for produce. Check out how Fresh and Easy has arranged their checkouts - all produce is pre-bagged and coded to easily scan without looking it up on a guide. Also, employees stand at the end of the line and bag for you every time. They're also environmentally aware (a little too much as my argument with the anti-GMO employee shows) and would accommodate your bag preferences.