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15 November 2012

Watching TV news the other week it occurred to me that some businesses do howl when they kick someone else and stub a toe. There was a news item about the amount of stock that self-service checkouts in supermarkets are losing. But that goes back to their own decision to lose a number of checkout operators. What you had originally were low-paid, physically hardworked people, mostly women, who stood on their feet all day, took a fair amount of abuse from customers, and cast a beady eye over every single item that went past them. It was rung up on the till, listed accurately (almost always and if not you could point that out) on the receipt, and you were wished ‘have a nice day’ as you departed. In the name of making more money, or at least, in saving outlay, certain supermarkets then shed staff. Persuading customers to do the work free would mean that they could operate with a far lower annual salary outlay, and wasn’t that a wonderful idea?

Er, no. What puzzles me is just how stupid an idea that was, and why supermarkets espousing it didn’t pause to think out the system beforehand. For heavens sake, we all KNOW that customers have ‘”taking ways,” that the younger generation are computer savvy, and that for some people, anything that isn’t nailed down is fair game. (and for items that are nailed down a percentage of those people carry a pry-bar anyhow.) So why would supermarket chains assume that all of their customers will join the queue, check out every item with meticulous honesty, and go on their merry way having saved the business the salary of an operator? Perhaps someone should have explained the meaning of the word ‘naive’. (as in – having or showing a lack of experience, judgment, or information; credulous…) What made supermarkets think that they wouldn’t have stock stolen if they stopped having human operators who watched for that?

However it finally appears to have dawned on them. Why ‘finally’? In Britain they’ve had this system for some time. I would have thought that any business with a grain of common sense would have looked at the benefits and problems of  a new system when it already exists elsewhere. In Britain a survey showed that almost one third of shoppers admitted using self-service checkouts to steal. And that’s admitted, the actual numbers could be higher. Move on to NZ, and you find that a poll here in August claims one in ten kiwis say they’ve stolen via a self-service checkout. And how many aren’t admitting that? No way of knowing. But there could be far more than are happy going on line to admit they’re thieves. In Britain they found that another problem was that of customers who had trouble working the self-service system. This not only slowed down the queues, it also endangered checkout operators because customers could (and some do) take their anger out on the person available and the numbers of that sort of incident seem to be climbing there.

In the end what supermarkets are going to have to decide is, do they make more with self-service systems and thieving customers, or by paying operator salaries and having far less theft? And are they also factoring in that if assaults on operators become more common and those operators must go on paid sick leave – and possibly be compensated for an unsafe workplace environment by higher salaries – just how long is it going to be viable to have self-service checkouts in supermarkets? More so if you move on to a worst-case scenario… (as in Murphy’s Law) and say that assaults on operators become common, OSH steps in, and the supermarkets find that they have to pay guards to prevent the attacks – and things come full circle. It’s cheaper to have checkout operators with less theft, and fewer frustrated bad-tempered customers – and not have to pay for expensive security guards in stores. But then, wouldn’t it have been easier and cheaper all around to stay with what we already have? Probably, but you can’t stop some businesses assuming that progress = increased profit. It’s just unfortunate that those who’ll suffer until possible end results sink in, will be the supermarket operators, who’ll have fewer jobs available. It will perhaps, be some compensation as they watch events unfold and snicker into their unemployment records.









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