I’m all lost in the supermarket: empowering customers through self-service technology

We all expect a ‘smooth and simple’ digital experience, including fast authentication and log-in, as well as seamless web and mobile interactivity. However, despite the focus on user convenience and simplicity, we do not always enjoy the ‘self- service’ process, wrangling with cumbersome digital-authentication requirements or leaving stuff in our virtual baskets.

Online is about speed, convenience, simplicity and saving time, removing friction with intelligent use of technology­­ to build credibility and trust with a brand. As organisations expand their digital based services, the need for an optimal customer experience within all aspects of the customer journey will only grow.

You can see this everywhere with the emphasis on self-service – from tax returns, self check-in at the airport, mobile banking and pay-at-pump petrol. You can even attempt to diagnose your own medical symptoms on NHS Direct before you go to Boots for paracetamol, but be prepared for their computer to ask another computer for a second opinion. Then of course, there is the self-service supermarket, scan-and-pay.

On Saturday I ventured into the socially-distanced experience at my local supermarket. Having completed my shopping, and remembering to bring my own carrier bags, I was presented with a checkout choice: go for the human option and have your shopping catapulted down a fast-moving conveyor belt faster than you can catch it, or go solo and DIY with the self-service scanner.

For me personally, for the most part I like to interact and make conversation with the checkout operators, passing the time of day when I’m making my purchase. It just brings a sense of normality to the shopping experience, chatting whilst bagging whilst putting the world to rights. It’s oddly, therapeutic. But there were queues, so Checkout Number 4 please. Let’s go self-service. Here’s my digital experience.

I open my plastic carrier bag, clip the handles on the metal fingers, smooth it out so stuff goes in more easily. Unexpected item in bagging area. What? A carrier bag in the bagging area! Wait for assistant to approach with barcode crib sheet, which she scans to acknowledge the alarm. Scan product: brought own carrier bag. So far, so good. Scan first product. Alarm goes off: approval needed in a stentorian tone.

Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge I’m old enough to buy bottle of Pinot Grigio. Put wine in bag. Loose items: Please look up item: Ok, I have parsnip, does ‘P’ in vegetables. It’s there, Blip. In the bag. No alarm. Clenched fist. Get in.

Scan box of paracetamol. Alarm goes off: approval needed. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge (again) that I’m old enough to buy this item, just in case I got younger since last time. But she’s busy helping another innocent victim on the adjacent self-service lottery till. Get bored of waiting: ask another assistant to help. Sorry I don’t have authorisation. She scurries off.

Wait while the flustered assistant waves her all-powerful barcode card. She stares at me like I’m part of the zombie apocalypse. Shake head. Scan bread, yellow label, reduced price. Wrong price appears. Barcode blindness. Wait for assistant to figure out how to get the right price up. She can’t. Wait for supervisor to approach and stab screen impatiently. Repeatedly swiping, running the risk of repetitive strain injury. I tell her to cancel the item instead. I’ll go without bread; it’s tainted anyway with the stench of technological and human ineptitude.

It’s all about barcodes. No code – no can do. You might recognise the item as a melon and so might the friendly human supervisor who has to guard the self-checkout area. It might even say the word ‘melon’ on a sticker on it and even have the price printed on it, but all that makes no difference. Without a barcode it might as well be an alien spacecraft (by the way, special offer: 2 for £99 million right now until next Sunday).

The man next to me seemed to have a sneaky system. He weighed a mango but when it asked what the item was, he put potato. Clever. Provided he had done his sums correctly and a mango cost more than a potato, pound for pound. A certain amount of trust is after all, involved already. When I confessed to having bought loose bananas, the screen asked me how many, and I duly entered nine, the correct number. I could so easily have halved it and put four and a half: nobody checked.

Trolley empty, just one final hurdle, alone again with the nemesis machine. It taunts me until I figure out which of the flashing orifices accept debit cards. A right palaver of paying. Get the hell out of the store and swear never to use the machines. Driving away, unexpected item in the bagging area is echoing in my head. Need some music therapy from my Apple Music: select I’m all lost in the supermarket, The Clash, to serenade me home. Sing Michael, sing.

During lockdown home food delivery via online portals became a popular alternative self-service from the supermarkets. It’s a paradigm shift enabling personal choice in the mass market, from one-size-fits-all to mass markets of one, where technology enables scaling to creating customer-unique, personalised value through mass customisation.

In some settings self-service works. The pre-paid Oyster cards have served travellers well on London Underground, enabling large numbers of passengers to pay and travel quickly in an environment where space and time is limited. Before long, perhaps, the Pinot Grigio glitch will be overcome by fitting the machines with biometric facial recognition that can tell by the number of wrinkles on your face or the world-weary look in your eyes, that you are of alcohol-buying age, are a regular purchaser of alcohol too – back again and in need of a drink!

Welcome to the age of DIY. ATMs were the first self-service machines introduced into the UK in 1967. They are the best example of a self-service technology that is well established, but the term ‘self-service’ originated some time ago, in 1917: Clarence Saunders received a US patent for a ‘self-serving store.’ Rather than compiling a list of goods for a clerk to retrieve, customers in Saunders’ store walked around the shop, collected the items they wanted to buy, and presented them to a cashier before leaving. Saunders licensed this brand-new concept to independent grocery stores with an interesting brand name: Piggly Wiggly.

But despite my experience at the check-out, we now consider it second nature to use self-service via a smartphone or an app, where digital self-service tools deliver a better engagement and highly personalised customer experience. Similarly, chat bots are used to deliver virtual customer service, deployed to deliver a more experiential approach to customer service at scale.

For startups, the message is clear: your product strategy has to include self-service elements, adopting software application development that can understand the language patterns being expressed by users. What’s needed is an intelligent self-service capability that enables you to build a truly scalable digital support capability, tapping into the systems and data in place, and then unifying the digital support experience.

The trend is clear: for every startup business, the need to give customers the best customer service experience is a key to achieving customer success, so how can self-service technology can boost startup growth? Here are some thoughts on the key elements:

Reach users where they are in the product The best digital support reaches customers where they are in the product itself, when they need it, and in the context of what they are doing. By deploying intelligent self-service within the application, customer adoption and usage of the product increases, as they don’t have to leave to find answers elsewhere. You maintain control over the experience they have, while gaining detailed insights that ultimately help you deliver a better product.

Provide recommendations to drive adoption and engagement Self-service leaders have more data, but it needs to be put to work to inform every interaction. Machine learning can leverage that knowledge at scale and proactively suggest ‘next best’ support content or training resources to guide users along their self-service journey. Recommending the right content drives customer adoption and engagement, as well as potential upsell.

Create a single source of truth Provide a single source of truth for your users wherever they go to find information on your platform. This includes intelligently unifying access to all relevant resources that help a customer with their task-at-hand, through FAQs, an up to date knowledge base, ‘how-to videos?’, tutorials, screenshots or community discussion board.

Deploy dynamic personalised self-service features  Keeping customers engaged requires a rich and dynamic user experience, and a self-service functionality with smart search suggestions, dynamic options for filtering results, while allowing for quick views and rich content is key. Also users expect you to leverage everything you know about them to provide personalised experiences based on their profile, search and browsing behaviours. You can then use the insights gathered to intelligently adapt the experience you provide. Customers are demanding. They want answers fast.

Optimise self-service for mobile users User’s expectations are such that you have to enable them to get things done conveniently and with simplicity from their comfort zone – and that is predominantly via a smartphone. Setting up a responsive mobile app for your site or brand is one of the best self-service strategies you can employ to ensure strong user engagement.

As users increasingly develop DIY mindset, they will choose providers that allow them to interact easily with consumer-controlled touchpoints. Since users won’t be able to keep up with the level of self-service required to manage their digital lives, they will delegate to their own bots to manage it for them. The customer self-service of the future is not just about the customers themselves, but both customers and their bots.

This means a startup has to embrace the user not just from a product-solution fit perspective, with unique elements in the value proposition, but moving from focusing on market share and marketing to the mass market, to cultivating personalised relationships with each customer and connecting on an individual basis based on experience, creating customer intimacy at scale.

Was my dysfunctional self-service checkout experience building any semblance of customer intimacy? Too many glitches, too many unexpected items in the bagging area exceptions for it to offer a smooth and simple experience. If many shoppers like me need help when using self-service checkouts, retailers need to be looking at the technology and the user engagement, experience and satisfaction. If so many people need help, it’s not helpful.

I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily. I’m tuned into the three for two offers, and save coupons from packets of tea as Mick Jones sang. Technology, it’s progress, right? For me, I left my soul somewhere between the aubergines and the pre-packed salads as fear of those tills is greater than the daleks created when I was aged seven.

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