Has America Become a Self-Serve Nation?

Jun 06, 2013

When consumers tell store associates they don’t need any help, they mean it. According to new research by Cisco, consumers prefer doing it themselves when it comes to buying at retail.

According to the global survey of consumers, 52 percent prefer self-checkouts to those with cashiers, viewing it as a quicker way to pay for their purchases and go. Here in the U.S., 43 percent of consumers prefer self-checkouts.

Younger consumers were more inclined to self-checkout than their elders. Fifty-seven percent of consumers 18-29 prefer self-checkout, compared to 55 percent of those between 30 and 49 and 45 percent of people 50+.

Sixty-one percent are "open to shopping" in fully automated stores that dispense products through vending units and provide kiosks to deliver virtual customer service. Forty-two percent of respondents said they’d prefer these types of stores versus traditional retail outlets.

A RetailWire poll in March found that 71 percent thought retail would shift "somewhat" or "much more" toward self-service models.

Consumers are also open to automating repeat purchases. Forty-nine percent said they would be up to using an engine to restock products such as milk in their refrigerators.

Do you believe that a significant percentage of Americans are ready to shop in fully automated retail environments? What is behind this trend and is fully self-serve an operating model that you expect retailers to pursue in the years ahead?

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22 Comments on "Has America Become a Self-Serve Nation?"

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Ralph Jacobson

This conversation should include deeper discussion around the segments of retail, like grocery, where self-serve has taken hold. I think other segments have a few years to go before widespread adoption is the norm.

The other issue is service during the shopping experience. Even in grocery, where typically helpful employees are difficult to find in the center store, shoppers like to have service available when needed. In the fresh departments, service still remains critical.

Though, at the POS, self-checkout is huge in many markets across the US in grocery, I think that most shoppers still appreciate the human service touch when required. I believe the particular mission of the shopping trip determines the propensity to use self-checkout.

Max Goldberg

It all sounds great until consumers have a question or need something that is not readily available, then they need a human, rather than a machine. Or have consumers become too uncomfortable dealing with each other face-to-face?

We should look at the current state of retail. Have retail employees become so expendable that they are no longer needed? Is this a result of poor training or lack of knowledge about the products they sell?

There needs to be a balance between employees who possess the requisite knowledge about the products they sell and are trained to provide friendly, helpful customer service and management’s desire to cut costs.

Zel Bianco

People like the idea of shopping in a fully automated environment, but place them in a store with no attendants and watch how many people freak out. People like options and to be self-sufficient. We are comfortable relying on ourselves because we do it every day. But to have a store and not be able to ask someone about the location of a product, or interact with someone when selecting items from the deli seems odd.

Maybe we will have fewer people in stores, but to take them out completely I think is a mistake. Take a retailer like Trader Joe’s. They offer competitively priced products, pay employees a living wage, don’t have any self-check services, and no one is complaining. Sure, the lines might get long but they have a great, helpful, and knowledgeable staff that get you in and out pretty quickly.

I think these figures represent a shift in the way people interact in general — like not as many people having landlines or using voicemail — but when retailers place more emphasis on how to service customers, rather than what they can strip out, you might get a different responses.

Ian Percy

Might the question really be: “Are consumers resigned to self-service and self-checkout because human service adds virtually nothing?”

Is all of retail destined to become like a sandwich vending machine? There is no one on earth who looks at the clock at noon and thinks “Yippee, time to get lunch at the vending machine! Can’t wait!” If there is, do not let them marry your sister.

This is where we get into the difference between ‘solving problems’ and ‘seeing possibilities’. If you merely want a pair of socks by all means push the S4 button and the little spiral thing will deliver them. But if you are looking for differentiation, for new possibilities, for something to help you take the road less traveled…you need imagination. You need a possibilities mindset. You need someone who can say “Look what happens when you combine that long-sleeved T with this blouse, this scarf, this hat and those jeans! That looks amazing on you.”

Now, so far we haven’t perfected Artificial Imagination…and it will be a sad day when we do. Then humans can stop thinking and feeling altogether. The world of infinite possibilities is a gift we are squandering.

Ken Lonyai

Consumers probably feel that they want to have a fully automated retail experience, but I doubt it. Retail is very much experience oriented and it’s unlikely that many retailers reacting to this information or a trend in this direction will be capable of satisfactorily creating self-serve vending like experiences that are meaningful to consumers. A failure to do so would clearly commodotize retail, making price and speed of transaction the major factors in purchase decisions and will make Marc Andreessen giddy about his prognostication about the future of b&m retail.

David Livingston
4 years 4 months ago

What’s behind the trend? What I see is that this is largely due to the labor shortage. The real unemployment rate is zero for people who truly want to work. My clients tell me their biggest challenge if finding people who want to work. They must compete with a government that pays people not to work or imposes a prohibitive minimum wage.

Also the Obamacare taxes and fines on a self-checkout are a lot lower than a human being. Then on the other end, retailers in economic boom areas must compete for employees who can make six figures working natural gas, oil fracking, mining, off shore drilling, or rebuilding destroyed communities.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

I am not convinced the self-serve is by choice. Much of it is a default mechanism to deal with non-friendly, non-engaging, inefficient service that unfortunately exists in many retail environments. People enjoy interacting in Starbucks or in Disney World where the staff are educated to respect and dignify the customer.

While the younger generation (digital natives) may prefer automation (they text more than they talk), it is not a given that all generations still want to be delighted in their shopping experience. If you can’t delight them, make it easier for them.

Does anyone still have photographs developed interacting with a live person versus a kiosk? Why? Because the kiosk is efficient and consistent. This was not always the case with a retail associate who may have been ending an 8 hour shift.

Liz Crawford

Everything is headed to self-serve whether we like it or not.

I was traveling overseas last week and went through a self-serve immigration kiosk! It was wild: I scanned my passport, answered a few questions, got my photo taken and took a receipt of the transaction to an official who collected it. There was one officer for hundreds of travelers.

I understand that self-serve is cents on the dollar per transaction, versus two or three dollars for personal help. So in financial terms—as well as strategic terms (digital tracking is easier)—there is no way forward, but through self-service.

The personal service hold-outs will include very high-end transactions (some couture clothing, some luxury cars) and transactions for the elderly.

Steve Montgomery

There is a big difference between self-checkout which I like when buying just a few items in a supermarket or home supply store and a fully automated store. With self-checkout I get to pick up the item, look at it, ask someone about it (assuming there is someone there to ask), etc. In a fully automated store, I get to do none of those things.

The successful melding of the two approaches is the Holy Grail retailers seek. Allowing the customer who wants to shop by themselves the ability to do so and then provide the human touch if and when needed. Those customers who want service should be able to locate (or be located by) a knowledgeable and friendly store associate.

Shep Hyken

What is a significant percentage? There is a tipping point where it makes sense to spend more time, energy and money to support a self-serve model. Yet at the same time, there always needs to be a backstop. What happens when the customer has a question or a problem?

The airlines, while not always my favorite role models for customer service, have done a good job putting a self-serve model into play. They took a lot of time to train the customers to use their machines. However, there is always an agent ready to help.

Zappos.com, while being a web-based retailer, still provides (on every page) direct access to a customer service representative.

So, regardless of any “significant percentage,” there needs to be a balance between self-service and full-service models.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
4 years 4 months ago

No question, younger consumers are driving the demand for self service. We have a yogurt shop in town that has you pick your size, flavors and add toppings with no assistance. The only place you encounter an employee is at the register to weigh and pay. I see even becoming kiosk driven in the future as well.

The automation trend does two things 1) It allows retailers that truly focus on Exceptional Customer Service to leverage this even more as a selling advantage (Trader Joe’s). 2) For retailers that focus on a younger demographic it provides a path to cutting cost from the system to be more competitive and unique (PeachWave). Use this link to view a whitepaper on self-service trends.

The place I see retailers getting tripped up is when they attempt to build a hybrid. You end up with sub par customer service and sub par automated shopping.

David Zahn

I am in the camp expressed by many that it is a question of “adding value.” If the associate adds value, provides help, offers incremental ideas, insights, etc., they are worthy of being engaged. If they merely confuse, are not pleasant and welcoming, or do not contribute, then I will do it myself.

The self-serve phenomena is not really self reliant. The shopper is just choosing to rely on a different source of help than the store clerks. The shopper checks Yelp, Amazon, websites, or what have you to get the impressions, ideas, answers, etc. from people perceived to be helpful OVER the store employees who are NOT seen as helpful.

Grocery has become self-serve for logistical and operational reasons…but there is SO MUCH MORE that could be done IF the clerks were properly trained and could help the shopper achieve their goals (cleaning, cooking, baking, preparing, etc.) beyond just “aisle 4 on the left.”

Nikki Baird

Looks like I’m with the general flow of the group, here. I think consumers prefer self-service only because real service sucks. And I don’t think that employees are to blame, I think retailers are. Employees should be the greatest differentiator of a store experience, not the local kiosk help desk.

It’s true that we need to do more to bring digital into stores, but the objective should not be to replicate the online experience, it should be to create a store experience that online will never beat. Buying whole-hog into self service for stores would be a huge mistake, even for the lowest-touch, lowest-service retailer out there.

Ben Ball

Liz Crawford is right—we ARE going to self-serve models of a sort for the majority of transactions in every area imaginable. Economics, technology and human nature all dictate it.

That said, there is (at least for a while) going to be a need for a human element to assist new users and to solve problems. But the human role in basic interactions (retail, administration, etc.) will shift from “primary care giver” to “rescue dog.”

Verlin Youd

I won’t repeat some good comments already made in regards to generality of assumption, where in the store, segments, what about when there is a question, and even being resigned to self-service. That all being said, there is also the question of difference between “open to shopping in a fully automated environment” versus “having someone there to assist when needed.”

Based on work we’ve done with retailers here at SCOPIX we have proven time and again that consumers “value” engagement with store associates in the most measurable way—by measuring their spending when they have been assisted versus when not. Across segments, sizes, and geography our results are showing that on average, when 10% more customers are engaged, sales increase by 5%, in the departments where that engagement occurs and often indirectly affects sales in other departments.

Bottom line, I believe that fully automated stores will appear, but they are likely to be limited by segment and geography. They seem to exist already for gas stations.

Ed Rosenbaum

Looking at the long-term issue, I am concerned that again, technology will be displacing workers. Our bigger concern is retraining the work force to other positions before technology takes over these positions.

Lee Kent

What Americans really want is convenience! If we are in a hurry, we want to be able to run in and get it, not wait in line and get out.

On the other hand, if we have plenty of time, nothing special in mind, then we really enjoy interacting with real people! We are social critters, you know.

The problem as I see it though, is that when a sales associate says, “Can I help you?” we often don’t know what to ask for other than directions. Why? Because we don’t know what added value they can bring. This is the sad state of retail these days.

While shopping with my niece in Anthropologie recently, we were in the dressing room and the dressing room ‘person’ asked my niece if she had seen such and such a top that would look great with those shorts. She offered to go get them for us. Now we know the value add of the dressing room ‘person’ and will take advantage of that every time. Get it?

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
4 years 4 months ago

Information is behind this trend. We are able to determine what we want/need quicker than ever and do it without the interference of a sales clerk. I am still at a loss as to why so many items in retail outlets are not priced correctly. If we don’t need/want the help for information, shouldn’t they spend their time making sure the store is consumer friendly? How can employees walk by items on display that aren’t priced, or shelves that are OOS and not react? I see it time and time again and am mystified!

Retail management just seems to be getting lazier and lazier. They don’t spend time on the floor, they don’t know what is happening in the store, they never talk to their customers, and they NEVER visit a competitor. Most retailers in the USA cannot execute a self-service model, or any other model, properly.

Craig Sundstrom

I’ll jump on the “adding value” bandwagon: the phrasing “52 percent prefer self-checkouts to those with cashiers, viewing it as a quicker way to pay for their purchases and go” tells us not that people prefer to go it alone, but that they don’t want to stand in line…which is hardly the same thing. That having been said, I understand vending machines are more developed in Japan, so it’s possible (and by a coincidence, I was reading an article on the “Automat” the other day, so it’s not unprecedented here either).

On a closing note: “Forty-nine percent said they would be up to using an engine to restock products such as milk in their refrigerators….”  How would that work?

Riyaz V
Riyaz V
4 years 4 months ago

Great opinions on the value of service.

If the paradigm on the retail experience is going to shift, it’s not by simply moving into stores, fancy gadgets and information that the customer could otherwise access sitting at home in their pajamas. It’s going to be by reclaiming their roles in the neighborhood—enabled by flipping customer data in a hyper local format.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
4 years 4 months ago

Particularly in the US, where the role of sales associate is deemed a lowly profession, the quality of staff has declined to such an extent that self-service, when available, is a desired alternative to live staff. The category of product is important too—packaged commodities are much more likely to be preferred in a self-check out environment, vs. luxury and other unique products.

I believe there will be a growing trend for 100% automated environments, but there will always be a desire for a personal, human experience as well. The pendulum will swing for awhile toward more automation until that is deemed “too robotic, too impersonal” and we’ll see the pendulum swing back a bit to include high-touch personalized human environments.

Jon Stine
Jon Stine
4 years 4 months ago

Some great points have been made here by all the commenters. Perhaps the lesson from the research is that the purpose (and value) of retail store associates—as defined by shoppers—may be changing before our eyes. Those who provide listening empathy and expertise (in product preparation, use, and multi-product orchestration, as well as problem-solving and answering the difficult “how” and “why” questions) will be highly prized. The data shows that 58% of consumers still want face-to-face service when shopping in store (a percentage expected to be higher in certain industry segments) and 94% want to speak to a human when customer services issue arise. To see more of the findings from our latest retail study, click here.


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