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Since its invention in 1984, the self-service till has been widely adopted in the UK. Yet there’s now evidence to suggest that customers prefer to buy their food and drink from a person rather than a machine. In 2022, when asked whether they would prefer to use a self-checkout till or a till with a human cashier if they were the only customer at the tills, 56% chose a till with a human cashier, compared with 36% who said they would prefer a self-checkout, according to a YouGov survey.
Even Amazon, which pushed the concept further with till-free shops where customers had to pay via their app, has recently said its Fresh stores will offer more traditional ways of paying in store, including card payments via staffed tills.
It might not be all that surprising then that supermarket chain Booths recently announced it would remove nearly all its self-service tills in stores due to feedback from customers. The retailer said it believes “colleagues serving customers delivers a better customer experience”. Speaking to BBC Radio Lancashire, Booths managing director Nigel Murray said customers had told Booths the self-scan machines were “slow” and “unreliable” – as well as “impersonal”.
For loose items, such as fruit, veg or baked goods, self-scanning can become more time consuming and clunky. “There’s all sorts of fussing about with that, and then the minute you put any alcohol in your basket somebody’s got to come and check that you’re of the right age,” he added.
The frustrations raised to Booths aren’t unique to its shops. “An M&S Simply Food has just opened in our town that is self-service tills only, which seems to have been met with a slightly negative response,” Simon Warren, owner of The East Street Deli, told Speciality Food. “Many customers of ours have told us that they’re not comfortable shopping there, as using the technology puts them off. We would never consider going down the self-service route, as people come to us for good food, not fast food!”
M&S chair Archie Norman has also blamed self-service tills for another issue: shoplifting. Speaking on LBC’s Money with David Buik and Michael Wilson, he said: “With the reduction of service you get in a lot of shops, a lot of people think: ‘This didn’t scan properly, or it’s very difficult to scan these things through, and I shop here all the time. It’s not my fault, I’m owed it’.”
Many UK retailers are currently facing a spike in crime in their shops, and professor Adrian Beck, who has led research on shoplifting for ECR Retail Loss, tells Speciality Food that major grocers are suggesting 25% of all their losses are coming from self-checkout. “That’s a significant chunk of loss that they’re now experiencing through this business choice that they’ve made,” he says. While this could be accidental, or more malicious as M&S’s chair suggests, the widespread use of self-service tills introduces opportunity for error. “I think they’re reaching a tipping point of how much more loss can we expose ourselves to before this doesn’t become a suitable business model going forwards,” he says.
“Indies will never use self-service tills,” Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailer’s Association (Bira), told Speciality Food. “This is partly due to security fears, but also because indies still have the opportunity for social interaction at the point of sale. A chance to get to know the customer, a chance to sell up, a chance to offer memorable personal service,” he said. And while fine food retailers may not be able to compete on price, they excel at delivering a shopping experience that is “geared towards customers’ needs rather that shopping efficiency,” he continued.
“Customers value the personal touch that you get in the smaller independent businesses for many different reasons. Just the quiet, short little chat with the customer grows the relationship, and essentially builds a level of trust with the customer,” said Simon Jones, who owns the Forest Deli. “For regular customers that you know by name, having a quick chat about family members or pets makes people feel valued as a customer, not simply for the transaction.”
“People buy from people,” added Simon from The East Street Deli. “People trust people. People build relationships with people. They don’t do that with a till! We have so many customers that visit us twice a week when they could easily do one slightly bigger shop on the first visit. Why do they do that? It has to be because they want that bit of face-to-face contact, they want to talk, tell us what they’ve been doing or where they’ve been.
“Not only do we believe that customers want face-to-face interactions, but we run a shop to talk to people, to help them. We don’t do it to get them in and out of our shop in record time with minimal contact, and the only noise being a beep at the till,” he continued.
Face-to-face retailing also offers customers the chance to ask questions and seek advice. “As a speciality food store, people come to us for that little bit of extra guidance, that bit of advice to make their dinner party go smoothly or to find the perfect wine to pair with their cheese board. A self-service environment would be a complete no-no for us at The East Street Deli,” Simon said.
At the Forest Deli, getting to know customers means the team can suggest, for example, a new cheese based on what that customer has enjoyed in the past. “The self-service till will never tell you that you have picked up a bag of decaf coffee by mistake or ask what their meal out was like at the weekend,” Simon said. “Other customers also don’t mind a slight delay if I carry the customer’s bag out to the car, for example, and more often than not if there is a conversation in the shop, other customers will join in and recommend their ideas.”
One of the most important aspects of fine food retailing is community, and building a vibrant community takes time and effort. “We want to create a warm, friendly and unpretentious environment to shop in and this has to be done through building trust with our customer base,” The East Street Deli’s Simon said.
“We’re lucky to trade in the thriving town of Wimborne in Dorset, and building a community around our store is vital for us. We have strived to build a friendly atmosphere with The East Street Deli where people want to visit and look forward to tasting our new products. Building this connection is so important in gaining customer loyalty,” he added. The team at the deli do this through word-of-mouth, social media and tasting evenings in partnership with suppliers.
With a challenging economic environment meaning an “ever-increasingly tough trading environment,” he said indie retailers must double down on their strengths over the bigger stores. “Customer service and product knowledge is where we can set ourselves apart. That’s the reason people look to speciality food stores, and we need to make sure we’re the best store in town for that,” he said.
New customers and tourists place a lot of faith in local retailers, the Forest Deli’s Simon added, not only for food and drink recommendations, but also for questions about the area, places to eat and drink, as well as places to go for a walk. “Being able to point customers to a café or restaurant they will enjoy and knowing the food and service will be great is all part of the service!
“The genuine community spirit can’t be faked,” he continued, but it’s evident when customers are popping into the shop to say hello or thank the team for providing cheese for a party. As Simon says, “Great and genuine customer service costs nothing, but it is essential and invaluable in the speciality food business.”