Self service – we still need a human

Since 1967 we’ve quite often got our money from the Automated Teller Machine (ATM).  A very convenient way of getting money out of our bank without having to step inside a bank and stand in a queue.  Not that I was around in 1967 to experience as a new concept back then.  I can imagine some people did not like them and it would take some getting used to.  Especially people who like their affairs to be dealt with by an actual human.

I was born in ’78 and so the ATM had been in use for a decade or thereabouts and was part of life by then.  Of course, banks still had branches so people had a choice, quickly get your money from the ATM or standing, maybe, in a queue, for a few minutes so that a human served you because you maybe liked the chatter and you could watch the cashier count your cash.

Fast forward to 2019 and the branches have gone.  The choice isn’t there.  My own bank is down to a small handful of branches within the city.  To do anything like speak to a financial advisor or pay money in it’s easier to travel to the head branch in town.  You can generally walk in there and there’s someone who can speak to you within at least half an hour.  For the outer branches you have to make an appointment and that’s even if there is one near you.

So, in banking the most popular transaction is probably taking money out therefore we’re pretty much forced to use ATM’s (or cash back) to take money out.  Even that is pretty limited.  Apart from a few machines, the smallest note you can take is a tenner.  Even if you only need a fiver, you have to take a tenner.

I’ve noticed cash back in supermarkets is starting to disappear as well.  The reason they’re giving? There’s cash machines outside.

Anyway, what I’ve written about above leads me to 1984 when the self-service till in supermarkets became a thing in America.  It took a while to establish but by the nineties it had made its way to the United Kingdom.  People were torn.  Some loved it, it was to be quicker than standing in a queue, people would whiz through and waiting times were to be reduced all leading to happy, happy customers.

Some realised that if a supermarket puts in ten self service tills then they wouldn’t have to hire as many cashiers.  That was a real put off.  It wasn’t 1967 when no one expected redundancies due to this new fangled thing, it was the 1990’s and everyone was aware that businesses were always trying to cut costs wherever they could.  It felt a bit wrong to introduce self service tills.

As time went on and the century turned, a lot of people were using these self service things but, equally, there were as many people who would say they preferred to interact with a human while paying and packing their shopping and this was certainly me.  I didn’t care if I had to stand in a queue.  I preferred it.  I had used the self service before and I can’t say I was particularly impressed.

New supermarkets were built and, if self service had been a success then they would have reduced the amount of human tills they built, but when the new supermarket opened near me it had at least twenty human tills.  I can’t remember, but I don’t think they initially had self service tills, however, if they didn’t it wasn’t long until they arrived.  Those ten tills that seemed to only be used for people buying one or two things.  Everyone getting their weekly (or monthly) shop still headed towards the human.  Part of this was because the self service tills were absolutely useless. Absolutely useless.  Unexpected item in the bagging.  Verification to buy alcohol (along comes spotty Simon who is eighteen if he’s a day to decide if you are old enough).  Things that wouldn’t scan.  What the hell do you do with a banana? It was just too much and, rightly, the jokes started about not being employed by the company so why were you doing their job?

Now, in 2019, it’s just the same.  Self service tills are no better than they were twenty years ago.  Some supermarkets have realised that they need a person to monitor them, not to stop thefts, just to deal with the red light that happens every few moments.  So, beside these self service tills there is a worker allocated to deal with all the hassle created by having shoppers do a job they never signed up for.

Has the invention and implementation of self service tills improved the customer experience? No.  Has it resulted in supermarkets employing less check out staff? I don’t know.  Doesn’t seem like it.  Although, some might have employed less.  They may regret that.

One supermarket I visit rarely has more than three check outs on the go at once.  That’s despite them having twenty to be used if needed.  Then they haul out another member of staff to open a new till and direct you towards it, as if you should be grateful.

Yet, the one supermarket I actually enjoy the experience of paying for my goods at the self service is Morrisons.  I like their human tills as I always seen to get a bit of banter.  Yet, because of visiting during busy periods I started to use the self service a bit more.  It was like heaven.  So easy, I had wine, the wee light goes on but it lets you continue scanning the rest of your products while you wait on the staff coming over to swipe their pass and declare you over 18 (think 25 or something).  Far too easy.

I was in Morrisons the other day.  It was three in the afternoon and I wasn’t expecting it to be busy, but it was HEAVING.  They have about twenty checkouts and most of them were open.  The queues lengthy at all.  I had too much shopping for self service and it was busy anyway, but they’ve installed something brilliant. They have two self service checkouts that have conveyor belts.  Pile your stuff on, scan it, the wine got scanned and put down and everything else got scanned and the guy came over and said I was over 18 (think 25), I packed and went.  Happy days.  I was actually feeling positive about the whole self service idea.  I actually raved about it to other people.

Then I went to a local mini version of a supermarket.  I needed carrots and a cooking sauce (which turned into juice, chocolates, rice, wine (!), a courgette, a smoked sausage and an onion.  When I got around to the check out there was one wee lass with a gigantic queue and no one at the self service.  Rather than add to her hassle I went to the self service.  I lifted a bag for life (which, incidentally, is what you get if you become my boyfriend now), scanned it and opened it out then placed it in the bagging area.  I was then informed there was something in the bagging area.  ‘Yes,’ I told the machine, out loud. ‘the actual bag.’

As the lass on the till was busy it took time for her to flick the red light to green and I scanned through a couple of items until it happened again.  I’d been packing the bag as I had seen many a check out operator do before (I mean, I’ve been packing my own shopping bags for twenty odd years, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing).  When this particular machine doesn’t like something you’ve done it will not let you do anything else.  You have to wait.  I considered ditching the lot.  I also, while not condoning it, understand why people just walk out without paying.  While the lass was assisted by another member of staff and the queue was sorted to the point the store was almost empty, myself and a girl at the next self service were still there needing attention.  Meant to be quicker? I think not!

Obviously some self service things are amazing.  I’m thinking Chinese buffets and carveries, of course.  ATM’s were a success because of their convenience at the time, but not necessarily a good thing given we’ve now lost so many bank branches.  Will we lose human supermarket tills in the future? Currently I don’t think so, we’ve learned they’re not better than humans.  The reason being, when they go wrong, you still need a human.