Whilst queuing recently in my local Sainsbury’s, I wondered what the future is for checkout assistants in the UK. The Sainsbury’s I refer to has been extended and now offers checkouts at both ends of the store, with those at the front being all self service. Retailers claim this new technology shortens queues and therefore we may surmise, enhances the customer experience.
Opinions on the technology vary across consumers with some preferring it to interacting with store staff and others becoming increasingly frustrated by a mechanical voice warning you of an unexpected item in the bagging area. Either way, self service is here to stay and indeed grow – Retail Banking Research estimate there will be 15,000 self service checkouts in use by 2011.
If the ratio of four self service checkouts overseen by one checkout assistant continues, where do the remaining three checkout assistants go? Are they redeployed elsewhere in the store in order to enhance the consumer visit or are retailers looking to reduce staffing costs?
Retailers will argue that self serviced checkouts are being introduced for the former rather than latter reason; however, in an industry where the ‘average touch per product’ is becoming increasingly important, self service checkouts do help to reduce this measure.
If we look at the online retailer Ocado, products are simply sourced from a distribution warehouse and delivered to the consumer, resulting in a low ‘average touch per product’. Within a supermarket, products have to be delivered from the warehouse to the store; perhaps stored in the back of the supermarket; put out onto shelf and finally put through the till which results in a far greater number of touches per product and therefore requires higher staffing levels.
If supermarkets are to compete effectively with the internet it is true that they will have to rethink many of the processes currently used in store. Thinking back to the mixed feedback to the technology however, it is vital that process efficiency does not come at the cost of customer satisfaction as one of the best ways to compete with the online environment is to create an offline environment that goes beyond pure convenience.