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Is Technology Getting in the Way of Customer Service?

Is Technology Getting in the Way of Customer Service?

By Michael Garry
Editor, Technology & Logistics

In retailing, as in life generally, consumers usually applaud technology for its ability to cut much of the tedium out of many tasks.

For example, self-checkout lanes, adopted by thousands of supermarkets, give the shopper an alternative to waiting on a long conventional checkout line; instead, they can opt for an empty self-checkout lane and simply do the scanning themselves.

Some food retailers, such as Stop & Shop and Food Lion (in its Bloom stores), are testing portable self-checkout devices with which shoppers can scan and bag their products during the shopping trip rather than waiting until they get to the checkout area. Once they get there, they need only pay for their purchases.

Of course, self-service technology has infiltrated many other commercial enterprises, such as ticketing kiosks at airports, pay-at-the-pump gas stations and the ubiquitous ATM. Most consumers have grown to view these tools as an irreplaceable part of life.

Yet at some point, retailers may want to ask whether self-service applications are taking too much of the human element out of the food shopping experience. Do retailers lose an opportunity to connect with shoppers by offering a self-checkout option? How important is it for the shopper to interact with the cashier at the checkout?

Larry Miller, president of the National Retail Research Group, Scottsdale, Ariz., and a former store manager, believes that consumers are not ready for a total self-shopping experience in the supermarket. “I think consumers still want engagement,” he said. “Not totally — they want some flexibility to do self-checkout. But they appreciate good customer service.”

In my own shopping experience, I have had a chance to try out some self-service technology in the form of the “Shopping Buddy,” a mobile tablet/scanner attached to the front of a shopping cart. Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., has been testing these devices in 19 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including my local store in Danbury, Conn. Over the past several months I have grown accustomed to using the Shopping Buddy to scan and bag as I traverse the store. As part of that, I have gotten into the habit of weighing and bar-coding my produce purchases and ordering my deli selections from the device.

The payoff for me is that I never wait at the deli and I almost never wait at the checkout. I can't say that I miss interacting with the deli clerks or the cashiers. If anything, I appreciate the lengths to which Stop & Shop has gone to speed up my trip through the store.

On the other hand, many if not most of the shoppers in my store choose not to use the Shopping Buddy, preferring the old-fashioned way of doing things. So Stop & Shop is offering both kinds of experiences — with and without interaction with employees.

It's hard to predict which type of experience the majority of shoppers will end up favoring. But stores that share Miller's belief in customer service should do more to make that service stand out. Otherwise, shoppers like me will continue to prefer the speedier approach.