In a Sprouts supermarket while waiting in line for a cashier, I see an employee supervising a bank with self-service scanning machines. She stands attentively like a butler with cloth and spray bottle in hand.
A customer scans and bags their own groceries, pays with a card and walks away quietly. The employee then sprays and dries the machine before retiring to allow another customer to check out.
Over several five-minute transactions, no one greets her and she speaks to no one.
This can hit one observer as dignified and efficient and another as nervous; and they could both be right.
As long as I have the opportunity, I prefer the human worker to a machine. Still, I am fully aware that I am taking a stand on melting polaris.
Whatever customers think of it, retailers are moving towards non-contact payment technology with no human employee involved. Amazon opened its first cash-free retail store in 2018. Walmart is testing non-self-checkout stores in Texas and in Canada, where “hosts” take place as treasurer.
When some chain stores withdrew from self-control technology early in the century, I felt relief; but the machines have evolved since then and the customers have warmed up to them. Kiosks with self-control shipped in record numbers worldwide during 2020.
In trade publications, industry leaders point to studies showing that the majority of consumers have the option of self-control, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The outstanding issues are seen as how to make processes faster and easier, prevent theft and encourage more customers to use the technology.
My local Walmart has expanded self-checking machines since 2016. Even Costco, which famously withdrew from self-control in 2013, has started reintroduce them. Like it or not, this is the direction that retailers are taking.
Kiosks are also on the way out – and so is cash. Retailers like 7-11, Kroger, Sam’s Club and others have experimented with app-based ways for customers to pay at least as far back as 2018. In an interview to Kiosk Marketplace, AI director Ariel Shemesh expects more scan-and-go technologies, “smart cars” and cameras in the future.
The work involved in scanning items, packing them and completing the payment is transferred from paid employees to the customers themselves. It is worth noting what displaces, such as skill, experience and integrity in an ensemble of people, just like the people in my grocery store.
But in business, it does not seem to be the “unique consumer experience” managers have in mind.
Entering Forbes, Raydiant CEO Bobby Marhamat, says the technology for self-control provides opportunities to “connect with customers” by selling, advertising “exclusive” deals and “communicating brand messaging” (which sounds suspiciously like more advertising).
Those of us reluctant to embrace automation who do not find a marketplace for scanners, cameras and drones attractive will be promised improved convenience and cleanliness. We want to be insured employees, albeit fewer of them, will be more readily available to help us elsewhere. In the end, there will be no choice.
Friday night, a goalie broke my years-long line of rejection of self-control – referred to in the industry as “friction” – through sheer undermining.
When the young woman invited me to walk out of the queue and use a kiosk, I politely explained that I did not prefer them and was happy where I was. She said, “I’m checking you out.”
After I left the line and followed her, she scanned my first item, pointed to where I would insert my card, and then walked away, leaving me for it.
This was rude, but I had to laugh. Human ingenuity had won again.
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