“Unexpected item in bagging area.” Five words to trigger fury in any supermarket shopper. Like most self-service options made possible by technology it’s brilliant when it works. But when it doesn’t, how we curse this particular brand of “progress”. While virtually all sectors have embraced it, some with more success than others. Those that win do so by enhancing the customer experience, those that don’t leave their customers feeling short-changed and exploited.
Whether it’s the small basket “swipe” version, the “scan and go” flavour with the handheld terminal, or “click and collect” where shoppers don’t have to even set foot outside their vehicle, the supermarkets have been at the vanguard of automation. These consumer-facing elements are as nothing though to what is happening at the distribution and logistics end.
In a recently aired episode of the BBC’s Supermarket Secrets, we had a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Ocado’s revolutionary warehouse facility. A swarm of 500 robots were seen operating over stacks of bins intelligently picking orders in a fraction of the time it would take a real-life person, and without the risk of human error. Fresher food, more accurate fulfilment, happier customers.
Contrast that with what’s happened in travel. Being slicker, removing touchpoints, and thereby cutting costs, has similarly meant huge changes in that industry. But Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist calls that being “Trapped in self-service hell”.
He laments the long list of tasks fliers now have to perform for themselves, all of which previously would have been undertaken by others. Printing boarding passes, scanning these at the departure gate, even weighing and tagging their own luggage. Changes he believes confuse and frustrate and which actually reduce productivity, rather than increase it, making the consumer feel like an “unpaid labourer”!
In an industry that was historically mechanical and labour intensive, the advent of digital has meant print minders, the one-time guardians of the giant presses, have been replaced with technologists, creatives and data specialists. Automation has not only speeded up the process but created new products allowing for unique documents that are designed, proofed and paid for online. All to benefit the customer.
Personalised books in print-runs are a perfect example. Even ten years ago these would have been the stuff of science fiction. Now they are not just a reality but can be created and shipped in as little as 48 hours from order. The customer is in the driving seat, but his “workload” is minimal and simplified.
Such automation, across sectors, touches all of our lives and as customers we’ve come to expect it. In a recent study 73% said they prefer self-service over engaging with real people - a 10% increase over the previous year. What’s critical is achieving speed and convenience, providing a human safety-net when things go wrong, and enhancing rather than jeopardising the customer’s experience.