Self service: Empowering the consumer

With a growing number of consumers relying on in-store self service technology, retailers need to think bigger and better, finds Retail Focus.

As consumers become accustomed to the simplicity of online transactions, they become less tolerant of poor service, states a new report by shopping centre group, Westfield which examines shopper behaviour in the UK. The research shows that consumers are increasingly relying on technology to give instant service, from click-and-collect and self-service tills to online price checking and touchscreen ordering kiosks. 

The study, based on responses from 8,000 consumers across the UK, found that 63 per cent of shoppers prefer self-service over service with more than 75 per cent adding that they would like to use touchscreen ordering points. ‘The way consumers are using technology when shopping is focused on having control and efficiency, with click-and-collect, self-service tills, reading online reviews and checking prices being the most valued technologies,’ says Westfield director, Myf Ryan.

In 2009, some 23,000 self-checkout terminals were shipped worldwide, with this number predicted to reach nearly 60,000 by 2018, according to RBR London. However, a study by Tensator shows that there is still significant dissatisfaction with both queueing and current self-service till systems, with one in three shoppers admitting to walking out of a store without buying the goods they intended to because of a bad experience. ‘Go into any high street store and the emphasis is very much moving towards self-service, but retailers need to ask themselves if they are getting it right,’ says Alan McPherson, CEO of Tensator Group. With 84 per cent of shoppers claiming to need help when using self-service tills, retailers should to be looking at the technology they use and the way its being presented to the consumer, argues McPherson. ‘If so many people need help, it’s not self service.’

Mark Curtis, chief client officer at global service design consultancy Fjord, agrees that there is growing customer vexation towards self-service technology. ‘In theory, companies handing more control to their customers is a positive development,’ he notes. ‘The problem is, all too often this transference of control comes across as companies abdicating responsibility by offloading costly front-end activities to their customers. Instead of being empowered, customers frequently end up feeling frustrated and abandoned, without there being any trade-off in terms of actual time saved.’

The technology certainly has a future, maintains Curtis, but improving the customer service experience will be crucial. ‘This could include allowing more personalisation, transparency and contextualisation of a service in a way that resonates with a consumer’s needs and expectations for a brand,’ he adds. ‘The smart players in the self-service space will design services that don’t make consumers feel like they must perform tasks, but rather, that they are involved in creating the service. Empowered and intrigued by the possibilities of getting more out of the service, consumers will feel more invested in the brand and more likely to stay loyal.’

Today, self-service technology extends beyond the traditional self-service checkout. Handheld scanning devices, touchscreen kiosks, smartphones and tablets are all being used to enrich the in-store experience.

‘Stores are now blending physical and digital retailing, and allowing customers to be in control of their own retail experience,’ observes Katie Baron, senior retail editor at

The technology, says Baron, hands over the control to the customer and provides them with the information they need to feel happy about their purchase. ‘Customers who shop online are used to being in control of their own experiences and now want to have the same amount of control in store. One brand in particular, Sneakerboy [Retail Focus, February 2014] has seen that although both men and women have shown the same level of interest in tech in the retail space, a larger amount of men are keen on browsing at their own pace. In response to this, the Australian brand allows customers to checkout their chosen items via in-store tablets or through the brand’s mobile app. These technologies are giving time-poor consumers the combination of traditional retailing and e-commerce, and ultimately enhancing the retail experience.’

In the grocery segment, Waitrose is trialling a range of technologies at its new store in Swindon that are intended to enhance the consumer shopping experience. The branch has a number of touchscreen devices for customers to browse content and place orders as well as mobile charging points and a mobile payment app that could replace its QuickCheck scan-as-you-shop service. It is also one of the first supermarkets to test iBeacon technology, which transmits information and offers to customers as they enter the store.

When it comes to in-store self service, retailers need to think bigger, claims Kate Ancketill, CEO and founder of GDR Creative Intelligence. ‘Customers expect to be able to do almost anything on their smartphones,’ she says. ‘Increasingly, this now includes ordering via their phones before they’ve even arrived at a store, and using them as a payment method when they leave.’

David Lowrence, retail engagement manager at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, a leading supplier of self-checkout terminals, agrees that self-service processes have expanded from the original concept of static in-store, retailer provided technology to customer-owned devices. ‘This empowers the customer to a massive degree, allowing a full omnichannel shopping experience, and forcing retailers to cater for a BYOC (Bring Your Own Checkout) environment,’ he says. ‘The new approaches to self service, together with the associated technology are having a huge effect on both the customer journey and the retailers’ ability to “save the sale”. By linking omnichannel techniques to both user-provided and in-store self checkout devices, an endless aisle can be created so that the shopper can purchase anything, anywhere, anytime from one device.

‘The omnichannel world is here,’ says Lowrence, ‘and self service is a major part of that experience.’

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