Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Check me out! The perplexing preference for self-service

Something has shifted in supermarket shopping. Visiting the local Woolworths last week I noticed that the queue for the self-service line was longer than the Express lane. In other words, more people were willing to scan, pay and pack their items than wanted to have a shop assistant help them.  Wow.  Sure this is part of the deal at cheap-end Aldi, but Coles and Woolies now too?

This was in the same week I attended David Chaulk's Australia Scan presentation which showed very clearly that self-service check outs were finding favour with the Australian public. 


Can it be as easy as convenience?  That we believe it is faster to handle the goods ourselves than wait?  Well, maybe this stacked up when low adoption of self-serve meant it was truly faster than going through the service lanes. But if this is no longer the case, what other than convenience is driving our behaviour?

My theory? Two factors. The first, isolation.  It's the interaction we are keen to avoid because we are becoming more isolationist (is that a word?) in our real-world dealings.  Yes we're twittering and social networking, but we'd rather deal with a beeping machine in the supermarket than a human.

The second. Fear of inactivity. We'd prefer to do something - like scanning and packing our items, than stand idly in a line waiting for service. I mean imagine, a whole 2 minutes...just waiting.  The horror! No, in this modern age we need to do do do and it freaks us out to stop.  What a different experience it would be if the queue was designed to entertain us rather than bore us.  Disney makes queuing part of their magical experience, but supermarkets choose not to use this time to delight us.

What I find interesting for marketers is that we keep reading and hearing about the importance of Customer Service. And yet, our shopping behaviour suggests that a less personal type of customer service is what we want.  We prefer seem to prefer technology (except of course in ads where we want to see check-out chicks and chaps and smiling bank managers). And just like the introduction of ATMs, initial public concerns about how the technology would replace jobs has now been forgotten.

So kudos to the supermarkets for risking this change. They've gambled that less personal service is the way to go, and they are being proved right.  For me, this suggests three things;
1. like the supermarkets, you can force people to trial technology by making the other options unpalatable (in behavioural terms, by 'nudging' them to your preferred channel)
2. people will adapt to technology despite initial resistance if there is sufficient personal benefit, and
3. Customer Service does not always mean personal service

So what does that mean for your business and the way you think about Customer Service? 

Image from http://aca.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=1065793


  1. I think these self-service check-outs suck. The big retailers just haven't got the technology right yet (typical of Aussie companies)...they are too sensitive and you can never get through them unassisted. So why bother....I don't.

    Give me a discount (comensurate with the labour saving that acrues to the store) and maybe I'll use them more often.

    So another reason they are so popular....hmmmm...maybe you can scan one item and drop two in your bag (hypothesis, not experience).

  2. Cynic Jon! I too was dismissive until I used for packaged goods only, in small quantities and with a card with a pin. The discount commensurate with labour is the Aldi model. The big guys seem to have gotten away with it so far.