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Is automation taking the pleasure out of shopping?
(Tuesday 24 January 2018)  

That is, of course, if you find shopping a "pleasure" - which I don't.

I welcome the march of automation and I must admit I welcome the news that a checkout designed to scan an entire basket or trolley’s worth of shopping in one go, is being tested in a store in North London.

The centre piece of IBM’s shop of the future are the self-service checkouts. The technology allows large numbers of items to be scanned at once. It does this as each shopping item has a tiny “radio frequency identification” chip embedded in it. This system could make the traditional barcodes obsolete as the chip contains much more information.

The customer places their items on a scanning platform, which displays the full list on a screen. They open a smartphone app and tap the device on a reader to deduct payment from an account linked to a card app, such as Apple Pay or Android Pay, and are then emailed a receipt.

(See the London Evening Standard review here)


This trial comes as Amazon opens its first supermarket without checkouts whether human operated or self-service.  

Amazon Go, as it's called, has been tested by staff for the past year in Seattle.

It uses an array of ceiling-mounted cameras to identify each customer and track what items they select, eliminating the need for billing. Before entering, shoppers must scan the Amazon Go smartphone app. Sensors on the shelves add items to the bill as customers pick them up - and deletes any they put back. Purchases are billed to customers' credit cards when they leave the store.

This makes the dreaded supermarket queue a thing of the past and will no doubt give any retailer a huge advantage over its competitors.

I think these are great advances with technology. It means I can buy my pint of milk or loaf of bread without having to speak to a human - something I don't want to do when I'm in a hurry.

However research has shown that automated checkout machines put off about a quarter of older people from going shopping.

According to the charity Anchor, older people find the automated checkouts intimidating and unfriendly. They say that without someone to talk to at the tills, shopping can be a miserable experience for some people.

The British Retail Consortium said it was important for shops to be welcoming for everyone and warned that automated checkouts could add to loneliness and isolation among the elderly.

Mario Ambrosi, a spokesman from Anchor said, "There was a time when people knew their shopkeepers and could pass the time of day. You can't do that with a machine."

A study by the charity suggests 24% of older people are deterred from shopping by automated checkouts. It means they can have gone shopping without having said 'hello' to a single person - and that, according to Mr Ambrosi, can be quite a miserable experience.

Also this week fears that robots could take the jobs of humans may be premature after Britain’s first cyborg shop assistant was sacked after a week of confusing customers.

In an experiment run by Heriot-Watt University, the Scottish supermarket chain Margiotta was asked to trial ‘ShopBot’, who they affectionately named ‘Fabio’. Fabio was programmed with directions to hundreds of items in the company’s Edinburgh store and initially charmed customers with his ‘hello gorgeous’ greeting, playful high fives, jokes and offers of hugs.

But within just a few days, the robot was demoted after giving unhelpful advice such as ‘it’s in the alcohol section’ when asked where to find beer. Banished to an aisle where he was only allowed to offer samples of pulled pork, Fabio started to alarm customers who went out of their way to avoid him.

While human staff managed to tempt 12 customers to try the meat every 15 minutes, Fabio only managed two.

The supermarket owner, Luisa Margiotta, soon realised the robot was actually putting off shoppers. Ironically, when they packed up Fabio to send it back to the lab, some staff were reduced to tears! Dr Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt, admits he was surprised by the reaction his invention got. He admitted that one of the things they didn't expect was the people working in the shop becoming quite attached to it.

So will robots replace shop workers in the future? Luisa Margiotta was sceptical. She said: “We find our customers love a personal interaction and speaking to our staff is a big part of that.

“Our staff members know our regulars very well and can have conversations on a daily a basis, and I doubt robots would be able to fulfil this."

One comment I saw on twitter suggested that staff at their local corner shop were willing to chat, have a laugh and a joke and talk about things with the customer and whilst prices were a bit more than at a supermarket, the experience is far better and it makes life a little more fun.

That may be true for some but sometimes when all you want is a pint of milk, you don't want a conversation.

If I want a conversation, I'll go down to my local.

Now I will admit I do fall in the "older person" bracket. I have my bus pass. But I get so frustrated standing in a check out queue wasting time waiting for dithering pensioners idly gossiping, loading their shopping into their bags before fumbling for a purse and counting out their cash. And when they have paid they still carry on chatting to the checkout attendant.

Now I may be accused of being a miserable old sod but I say thank goodness for self service technology!

But what is the answer?

Most of us work for a living and only get an hour for lunch or a couple of days off a week, I would suggest that supermarkets offer a 5% discount on items bought by pensioners, or those who want a chat, between 9:30 and 11:30 on weekday mornings.

And what about checkout aisles specifically for those who want to stop and chat? A kind of slow lane?

My compromise is to have three types of checkouts. The self service for those in a hurry and are only buying a couple of items. An attended checkout for those with a larger shop but still limited with time and a "slow" checkout for those who want to "have a chat".

I know which one I would use.



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