Rise of the machines

It has been about 10 years since self-service machines were introduced to Irish supermarkets Róisín Burke finds that, while they’re here to stay, employees need not fear them... yet.

IT’S Thursday night, 9pm, and I have popped into Tesco to pick up a few things after training, as I do every week. I am tired, hungry and wearing a sweat-drenched T-shirt and shorts. I grab what I need and head to the self-service checkout.

One of the great advantages of self-service is you don’t feel awkward buying milk and bread in your gym gear. There is also a general perception that the DIY checkout is faster than the traditional route, a theory I put to the test.

At the self-service checkout, there is an old lady in front of me struggling to find the label on her pasta. She then can’t find the button to press for her single potato. There is also a problem with the discount label on the meat she is trying to scan.

I watch, as everyone else watches, impatiently. I am tired, standing in line with an armful of items, and I want to be on my way.

When my turn comes, like the old lady, I too encounter difficulty. My bottle of Coke is now half-empty and the computer registers the weight irregularity after it is scanned and placed on the belt. The assistant is required to swipe his card and also presses some buttons.

Left to my own devices, I again find myself perplexed. My Taytos refuse to scan. Scowling at the computer, I wave the bag viciously in front of the machine, but to no avail. The assistant returns and scans them through.

I pay and leave.

It has been four, very frustrating, minutes.

The following Thursday, after training, I stop by Tesco to get the dinner. I pick up a multi-pack of crisps, throw two packets of ham in the basket because they are on special offer, I get a bottle of Coke, two cans of beans, a bag of pasta, and some apples.

I join the line for a manned checkout and start my timer.

As I wait my turn, I place my items on the belt and without the burden of my groceries, I relax. My mind wanders off and I don’t notice the two people in front of me go through the process of purchase. All of a sudden, it is my turn.

The woman scans my things through systematically and efficiently. She does not seem at all bothered by my sweaty sporting attire, although to be honest, she doesn’t seem bothered with anything.

She gives me my total, I give her my card. Exactly 3.55 minutes after joining the queue I am heading for the door.

Tesco was the one of the first to embrace automated machines in supermarkets. Around 10 years ago, 2003-4, the first self-service checkouts were introduced to the Irish market.

A Tesco Ireland spokesperson says the idea behind the machines is customer choice. “It is faster and it is less hassle. If you only have a few items, it is easier. When we introduced it we were surprised with how easily older people took to it. We have had very positive feedback.”

Despite concerns that automated machines may be stripping people of employment opportunities, Tesco’s spokesperson maintains this is not the case.

“The machines need to be supervised and any labour that is freed up is just redirected to other duties such as stock and cleaning. There is always work to be done.”

The employment figures for Irish Tesco stores remain optimistic, from 92 stores with 9,500 employees in 2003 to 142 stores and 15,000 employees at present; and employment is still increasing.

Although Tesco Ireland maintains that self-service is simply another option for customers and no threat to employment, a look across the waters tells a different story.

Tesco UK has a number of concentrated self-service shops with a Tesco Express in Northampton 100% self-service and a Tesco Metro in Bishopsgate 60% self-service.

A spokesperson from the market research company Kantar says self-service is a global phenomenon that is particularly prominent in urban areas.

“The days of the big weekly shop are gone,” says Bryan Roberts, director of Retail Insights.

“Particularly in cities and urban areas, people will go to the shop on average five times a week and the majority are only getting five or six items.”

Roberts says big shops are becoming a thing of the past and many people who do buy in bulk do so online.

Interestingly when Tesco attempted to launch its Fresh and Easy franchise in the US in 2007, it was entirely self-service.

According to Roberts, the Fresh and Easy brand failed in America for a number of reasons, including lack of loyalty card, bad location, branding, and checkouts.

Superquinn and SuperValu, which are amalgamating under the name SuperValu from 2014, are other chains that have incorporated self-service into their stores.

Sixteen Superquinn shops in Ireland offer self-service checkouts as well as SuperScan, a system where the customer can scan items as they go round the shop with a handheld device which they then use to pay at the checkout, without having to empty their trolley.

“We understand that time is precious so SuperScan is designed to give our customers the most convenient and fastest way to shop.

A spokesperson for the SuperValu range says the business strives to be a leader in technology and that offering a range of options to customers is important.

The chief executive of the Consumer Association of Ireland, Dermot Jewell, says the development of automated machines is a positive progression but there will always be a need for manned checkouts.

“There will always be a demand from people to interact with other people. Things like queries, price checks, help bagging.

“The self-service checkout is only for 10 items of less. For the big shops, especially around occasions, like Christmas or Easter, there needs to be capacity to cater for a large number of trolleys.

“Also, for any parents who are trying to do a shop with small children, it is impossible to handle the children, the trolley, and payment without someone helping put through the items, it just makes things easier.”

Offering an explanation for places like Aldi and Lidl, which have not introduced an automated option for their customers, Jewell said there could be a number of reasons, including space and cost.

“They may not have space for them at the moment or perhaps the initial cost of setting up the machines is off-putting, but it is likely they will move in that direction in the future.”

As a customer, I have no preference to how I purchase my goods. I think, like most people, I will gravitate towards the smallest line, regardless of what is at the end of it; computer or person.

Since the Terminator movie in 1984, we have been worrying ourselves about the effect technology has on our lives.

We are afraid it will take over, make us jobless, useless. obsolete.

In terms of retail employment, it would seem we are safe for now, but like the metamorphing metal man, it is a problem that will be back.

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