Friday, 2 December 2011

Humane Shopping

Yesterday I popped into my local WH Smith to see if the latest edition of my favourite magazine had come out.
Lo and behold three quarters of the shop assistants had been replaced by machines since my last visit a couple of weeks ago.
A girl was directing the customers to them.
'If you've only got a few items there's a till free over there.' she repeated breezily at regular intervals.
When it was my turn I replied;
'No thanks. I don't agree with putting people out of work.'
'Oh well, they're here now.' she said, indicating the machines with a wave of her hand no less breezily, as if that were an end to the matter.
'I can still take a moral stance' I replied, waiting for one of the two human shop assistants left to become free. She carried on directing customers to the automatons, though I noted with satisfaction that the three customers immediately behind me also refused to be herded towards dehumanisation. Had they overheard my exchange with the girl, or was it natural repugnance that they no longer warranted a 'Hello, how are you today?

Even more shockingly it seems that Central Library in Oxford has dispensed with almost all its staff in favour of check in and check out machines as part of a radical recent makeover (despite Oxfordshire County Council's pleas of poverty regarding even keeping all its libraries open, let alone finding money for expensive makeovers).

Now you might not expect WH Smith to care that a friendly human greeting might be an elderly customer's only human interaction for the day. They are there to maximise profits after all, but a Library....?

Nor is any payment offered by the commercial concern to the customer for doing all their own checking out and packing, no matter that they have shifted this labour onto the customer and slashed their wages bill, albeit granted investment in the technology will take a while to pay for itself).

And what happens to all the staff who are now surplus to requirements? Where do they go? How do they maintain economically-useful lives without jobs? Is all this redundancy cutting off their former employers' noses to spite their faces? Are not staff also customers who keep the economic lifeblood of this nation pumping round?

On a Radio 4 programme recently I heard a commentator opine that if you give £1 to a working person it will go more or less straight back into the economy. If you give a £1 to a rich person, chances are they will trouser it and find a way of sitting on it for years. On this basis, working people are even more economically vital than wealthy people it would seem. Makes me wonder how many bankers spent their ill-gotten gains in the country in which they obtained them once the world was suddenly their oyster and they could go anywhere and do anything.

A colleague of mine who also enjoyed those heady teen days where you could walk out of one week-end shop job straight into another - if you decided you fancied shoes over greeting cards for example - now despairs of her teen son finding his first shop job as there just isn't anything for him to cut his teeth on to prepare him for adult life and give him the buzz and self-esteem of his first wage packet. He has applied to more than 30 and had only one scant interview with no contact afterwards. The new Asda Living store received over 70 applications for every part-time job it offered. Even adults now struggle to get more than part-time jobs in shops and often have two or three on the go to make ends meet - exhausting and stressful in the extreme - plus they lose out on the perks that their forebears used to enjoy in more secure days, such as Christmas bonuses and promotion to supervisory and managerial roles. The stores in turn lose out on staff continuity and loyalty - which naturally impacts on customer service and satisfaction and the once-happy and secure feel of a store.

No question shops are suffering in the face of internet and out of town shopping, but they do need to sell what people want and be innovative in what they do. Any store which comes up with classic good quality clothing and shoes which actually fit, are comfortable and look good will win my custom, e-bay or not, but so many shops like Next have just lost their way and spend far too much time pandering to the teen market who can no longer obtain shop jobs to finance their purchases than they do catering for older customers who might actually be able to afford what they sell, albeit on an irregular basis in my case.

Automatic tills will not be enough to save them, and are yet another turn-off for customers like me. though I have even heard teenagers opine they don't like them. Quite right too. Why should they harbour any affection for the thief of their start in the world of work, a rite of passage the rest of us once took for granted.

The joy is being extracted out of the shopping experience which used to be a tactile and sentient business - you felt and tried on the clothes, you chatted to the staff. The more dehumanised this element becomes the more terrestrial high street stores lose their advantage over internet shopping.

Is this what any of us want? I don't remember voting for it.

13 comments:

Mud in the Blood said...

My first part-timejob was in a greengrocers, I was 13. Whilst I certainly benefitted from the cameraderie of work and from the self esteem that a pay packet, however modest, brings; the greatest benefit to me was the brain exercise that weighing out the various fruit and veg then adding up the totals gave me. Those first jobs give us a lot in terms of the practical application of what we learn in the classroom and how to socially interact with different people. All this will bypass today's youth I suspect.

Steve said...

We'll get to a point in this country where the only jobs available will be machine engineers and electricians. It will be known as maintaining the infrastructure.

Phil Lucas said...

Whilst I do agree with everything you say I should, for the point of balance, mention that one advantage of automated tills in WH Smith is the ability to bypass the grubby teenager or disgruntled 50+ who is contractually obliged to ask if you would like a half-price Toblerone with your purchase.

Mark Thornton said...

Many of these jobs have been 'proceduralised' for years so that even the human interaction has been strictly controlled according to pages of procedures (the "have a nice day" mentality). If automation at the till frees up people for in-shop assistance and advice, that's one thing (a route Dixons/Curry's digital have gone down interestingly, training staff to know more about products) but let's face it, we all know what the end-game is here...

(on another non-automated matter, Hal Holbrook est arrivee!)

David said...

Like Phil above, I am in two minds where it comes to WH Smith. For the past couple of years they have made everyone queue in a snaking, ramshackle alleyway of tat, celebrity magazines and... well, tat, to reach the till at all. And then trying to sell you chocolate. It's as if they design their shops to be as customer hostile as possible, and I've been avoiding them as far as I possibly can for that reason anyway. This just takes it one stage further, I think.

Marginalia said...

I have to agree with comments above. W H Smith has not for some years offered anything resembling a good shopping experience. No doubt the introduction of auto-tills reflects their attitude to consumers.

Now if Waitrose ever introduced anything like that (their handheld scanner is something different entirely), civilisation as we know it would be finished.

Nota Bene said...

It is a tragedy of modern times that the world is being de-humanised. It's an inevitable consequence of fast evolving technology isn't it? I feel very sad for the people who no longer have jobs, and for the customers who no longer have shop assistants to deal with. My fond hope is that the people at the tills have been redeployed to more 'high value' tasks. That may be a forlorn hope.

Kelloggsville said...

I had a very similar interaction with a chirpy she devil in WHSmith. Have you actually tried to use one of those damned machines? I generally end up swearing at it, loudly because "I HAVE PLACED IT IN THE SODDING BAGGING AREA YOU BLOODY USELESS PILE OF METAL SHITE" whilst the cool people just beep beep their way effortlessly through and breeze happily out of the door. I would so much rather be given the chance to tut at the inefficiency and lack of dress code of a hungover teen saturday worker than have to deal with the automated nerve wrecker.

Kelloggsville said...

I had a very similar interaction with a chirpy she devil in WHSmith. Have you actually tried to use one of those damned machines? I generally end up swearing at it, loudly because "I HAVE PLACED IT IN THE SODDING BAGGING AREA YOU BLOODY USELESS PILE OF METAL SHITE" whilst the cool people just beep beep their way effortlessly through and breeze happily out of the door. I would so much rather be given the chance to tut at the inefficiency and lack of dress code of a hungover teen saturday worker than have to deal with the automated nerve wrecker.

Dan said...

Excellent points. WHSMith is a tawdry, tatty place! And I recently noticed some American-style "litigation centre" where you pick up the phone to complain that some paving slab had tripped you up. What a pity Broders has gone. The High Street does feel like a depressed place - TESCO is plain awful. I recently thought that in the future we'll look back with fondness on the bored person herding people to do their own scanning, because then we'll have vast sheds where people trudge the aisles as if it was all a massive vending machine with NO staff. Just one step away.

Waitrose staff seem to get it right - always cheerful and happy. Probably because they have some investment in the company - do you know how this works? Is it just a bonus for them based on good performance?

Anyway, excellent post.

Wisewebwoman said...

Terrific post, Laura. When we dehumanize bookstores we've surely lost the plot (no pun intended).
I am also sympathetic to the fact that we the people brought us to this pass by sidestepping the really good ones and buying cheaper on line. (Hand up here). I mourn the demise of my favourites but I take responsibility too.
XO
WWW

The Sagittarian said...

Oh a kindred spirit indeed! I refuse to use the self-serve tills at anywhere they happen to be. You don't get the stuff any cheaper and I certainly don't want to assist employers to reduce staff.
Great post, merry christmas too by the way!

moi said...

When I shop, I want one-on-one contact with the person to whom I'm handing my money. Besides, these auto machines take way more time to use. I hate them.

And with that, I'd like to wish you all the best for a joyous, happy 2012!