I was standing in a well-known high street chemist (rhymes with Tommy Banks’ newest restaurant in York) the other day - this was one of their mega branches in Liverpool Street station that is always crazy busy with people buying their essentials before boarding trains.
It was about 3pm on a very rainy Monday and there was a queue of about 20 of us. We were all patiently waiting our turn check ourselves out – the new retail norm - scan your own items and try and get through the whole process without being told there was an unwanted item in the bagging area or that the item needed age verification by a member of staff. Just the one member of staff in this instance I hasten to add, who was tasked with dealing with people having such issues, and even one couple (I think they were tourists) who only wanted to pay by cash. Cash? Computer very much said no.
Patiently standing in line holding some toothpaste and shaving foam, I glanced to my left to a see a bank of checkout tills. Possibly a dozen or so, all unmanned. All empty. Not fulfilling their purpose. I looked a little a closer and saw that each of the little screens that face the customers - usually showing the price of the goods they’re purchasing - all showed the same message: “our store colleagues happy to help.”
I wondered if this bank of tills ever had inhabitants. Friendly faces that would say hello, answer a question and generally be ambassadors to the business. Why have people been replaced by these inefficient self-service machines? I’d understand if they were a better experience, but they’re not. They’re often clunky, confusing (anyone else have issues on which side to place their shopping?) and they cannot offer customer service nor an experience.
It’s a shame this high street business has clearly resigned itself to using machines instead of people. I get it - the retail environment is tough and times are hard, but what’s happened to investing in people? Our lives are ruled by tech so a visit to a shop or a restaurant - to grab a coffee, some lunch, even a tube of toothpaste - is so often a welcome break from staring at a screen all day. We get those few minutes of much needed human interaction.
Surely the lady employed to oversee the self-service checkout would no doubt enjoy her job far more, find it more rewarding and likely give the customer a better experience if she was allowed to offer a bit more hospitality as opposed to repeatedly entering her staff ID to the till to override issues.
Restaurateur Jeremy King was speaking at an event recently where he talked about artificial intelligence and restaurants. He acknowledged that there’s technology that can do the basics such as greet a guest and tell them their table is ready, but he made one very important point, one we should all be grateful for. AI can never love or show emotion. Humans can - they show empathy, sympathy and humility. Isn’t that why we work in hospitality after all?