Jayne Dowle: Memo to Morrisons - stop treating shoppers as robots

Morrisons is set to launch its Beef Shorthorn range in September.
Morrisons is set to launch its Beef Shorthorn range in September.
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IF there was a medal for excellence in the line of retail service, I know who I would give it to. The man who supervises the self-service tills in my local Morrisons. I don’t think that there can be a more patient shop assistant in the world.

Every time I see him he is attempting to sort out some problem or another with the machines. If it’s not an errant product refusing to scan, it’s a customer having a meltdown because a grocery item has fallen off the belt or their debit card is being spat out.

I always try and exchange a pleasant word with this cheerful chap. The other day though, his mood was uncharacteristically dark. As I battled to weigh just the one lemon, he told me that the bosses have decided to turn even more tills over to “self-serve”.

It’s happening in the next few weeks apparently. He’s far too professional to offer his own personal view, but there was a hint of sad resignation in his eyes.

I told him to tell his bosses from me that this was madness. I only use the self-service till when there is no-one waiting in the queue or I don’t have much to buy. It is far too stressful attempting to get a trolley-full of items through this automated process.

What on earth are those in charge thinking of, making it even more difficult for us to simply go in, do our shopping, pay for it and leave? It’s frustrating enough for those of us who have the luxury of shopping unencumbered.

Have they not considered that a large proportion of their customers are elderly or parents with pushchairs and toddlers in tow? Do they really think that making it even more difficult to go shopping will endear these already-under pressure customers to their stores?

I have to say too that I was becoming quite impressed with Morrisons. Since the beginning of the year, the changes made by chief executive David Potts have made the Bradford-based supermarket much more competitive. “Customers are coming back,” he said recently. “They come back when we get things right. Customers want us to be more competitive.”

Well, I’ve got news for him. If he decides that “getting it right” involves introducing more self-service tills across his stores, he will get it wrong and all his hard work will have been in vain. He might justify it as saving money, but I am reliably informed that each self-service till costs in the region of £30,000, so go figure that cost/benefit ratio against paying out wages.

In the ultra-competitive world of supermarkets, what the customer really wants is excellent service. What we most specifically don’t want are more of those blasted machines. Not only do they malfunction and throw tantrums, they create queues and also, most importantly, take the personal touch out of shopping.

It surely cannot be news to an experienced retailer like Mr Potts that customers actually like being served. We want to feel that even when we are loading our trolleys with toilet rolls and tins of dog food that we are valued.

Automating the process and reducing the contact between shoppers and members of staff surely goes against the grain. It’s unfair to single out Morrisons for this. It’s the same in the other supermarkets – Asda and Tesco, for example.

We have long assumed that the reason why the big established names are losing out to discounters such as Aldi and Lidl is purely because of prices. However, it must be said that these supermarkets tend to rely on the good old-fashioned cashier instead of leaving us to our own devices with the self-scan.

In a world which could be entirely automated if we wished it to be – after all, internet food shopping is widely available – customers will always actively choose to be looked after. I’d like to see more attention from staff, not less. Otherwise, we might as well not even bother leaving the comfort of our sofa to go to the shops. Where’s the fun in that though? Where’s the appreciation for fresh produce? Where’s the opportunity to select the best fruit and veg, and choose the most succulent cut of meat?

And think about the people who work in supermarkets too. Do you think that they want their job to be one which simply involves filling shelves all day?

Doesn’t interacting with customers, offering up a smile and a chat, help to make the shift go more swiftly? I am pretty sure that no store assistant wants to be treated like a robot. And neither does the customer.