retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

One of the great mysteries facing any business is deciding whether a single consumer complaint represents a large and silent group of shoppers or is simply one person’s gripe. Thanks to the megaphone given every upset shopper through social media, this dilemma is only magnified these days.

So we have to consider the importance of a complaint from someone of renown with a larger than usual megaphone, especially when it is pointed directly at food retailers.

Rick Reilly is a fairly well known sportswriter and author who recently took his local supermarkets to task for the increasing presence of self-scanning checkouts. In short, Reilly hates them and doesn’t understand why he, a shopper, has to something that previously was handled by workers.

(Reilly seems to hate any self-service situation from airport check-ins to McDonald’s.)

In the course of his screed against self-scanning, a column in the Washington Post, Reilly explains that he once unhappily worked at a supermarket and also details the many ways customers can fool the scanners to lower the price of goods.

There are many points we can take from Reilly’s article. First, I don’t think he speaks for all shoppers and certainly not younger shoppers who, from everything I see, seem to prefer self-service to interacting with staffers. But I also don’t think he is alone in his anger at self-scanning. (Sorry to pick on CVS again, but go to the self-scanning area of any CVS drug store and watch the collapse of humanity as products and coupons fail repeatedly.)

The point I think we need take from Reilly’s complaint is pretty straightforward. Self-scanning actually solves a lot of problems. Some shoppers prefer it to be sure, but it also is a way of allowing stores to vastly increase the number of open checkouts at any time, no matter what the staffing issues, which reduces lines.

However, I wonder if any retailer has helped explain the benefits to shoppers or provided any reason for a cranky shopper (like Reilly) to find any personal benefit to self-scanning. In addition, very little has been done to educate shoppers on how to best use the scanners or even to safely pack a grocery bag. One has to wonder if there are lessons from the past when shopping moved from all service to self-service.

And let’s not think of this as an isolated issue. Increasingly shoppers are moving on-line, which means the labor they used to happily supply in selecting their own items and bringing them home is now being done by workers and the jury is out on whether there can or should be an additional charge for that. 

Certainly shoppers might understand the extra charge better if they were given some small incentive, maybe a minor discount or a small coupon, for scanning their own groceries. If they better understand that every part of the shopping trip requires labor and generates cost they might better appreciate when things are done for them such as on-line shopping and delivery. At the very least some education as to why these changes are being made would seem in order.

Again, you could read Reilly’s article and dismiss him as an individual crank with a overdeveloped sense of entitlement. But then again, what if his sentiments speak for many, many more people who don’t have his megaphone or his ability to articulate his anger?  Perhaps his screed is giving us some long overdue insight into an issue that should have gotten a lot more attention.

I also hope Reilly visits an Amazon Go store one day and comments on the just walk out technology. Those insights could be pretty helpful as well, and maybe somewhat scary.  But then again, in those stores no effort is required at all, which might appeal to him and others. Especially when it’s well explained.

Minus that, shoppers might never understand why the difference between self-service and self-serving is only two letters, but means so much more.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com.

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.