Opinion: Self-service needs a few Bradleys

On my way home from work, I stopped at the garden center in my neighborhood home-improvement store to buy a few plants for my flower boxes. For less than US$20, I found four beautiful red begonias that were perfect. The standard checkout lines were long, so I decided to use the self-service kiosk.

When I scanned the first plant, the kiosk barked, "Please scan item and place in plastic bag." I thought I had just done that, so I looked at the bar code carefully. It was sprinkled with just enough black dirt to make it unreadable. Needing an alternative to the sleeve of my silk suit and not finding any paper towels, I used one of the plastic bags provided at the kiosk to clean the label. Using a plastic bag to wipe damp dirt off of a plastic label on a plastic pot doesn't work very well. You end up generating static electricity, and the dirt becomes more attracted to the label.

Without any cashiers to provide the kind of assistance I got from Bradley, an airline employee who helped me catch a plane and make it home in time for dinner, it took longer to pay for the begonias than it did to select them.

After that column appeared, many of you wrote to tell me about similar experiences. Paul Dearling also had an adventure in a home improvement store. The 1-inch spring he and his wife wanted to buy didn't have enough mass to trigger the kiosk sensor. He was left listening to a recorded voice instructing him to "please place the item in the bag" 14 times while his wife hunted down a cashier to cancel the transaction. But Paul went on to say that although the systems aren't perfect, he appreciates the faster checkout lines and enjoys the camaraderie he finds among customers.

I agree. When kiosks work, they're fantastic. A majority of Americans -- over 70 percent -- think so too. During a typical week, we all stop at the ATM to get cash or fill our cars with gas at the self-service pump. These automated transactions haven't quite cut out the human element, but in the past, we would have interacted with clerks, tellers or gas station attendants. Now the people we connect with are fellow customers.

We ask the person ahead of us if the brand of weed killer he's buying works well and the person behind if she thinks the colors we've selected match. Without help from someone like Bradley or some other type of assistance, our consumer experience is highly influenced by the information we gain in line and how well the kiosk is working.

There is no doubt that self-service technologies are here to stay. Companies can save too much money not to deploy them. An article called "You're Hired" in the Sept. 16 issue of The Economist stated that a standard supermarket kiosk can handle the workload of two and a half employees and that a telecommunications company spends 10 cents on a directory service transaction when it uses an interactive voice response system but $7 with a call center. It's the classic story of technology replacing people.

As the designers and implementers of this incredible cost-reducing technology, we need to remember the human element. Create enough frustration for a customer, and you lose a sale; frustrate that consumer a second time, and you may lose him for life. Remember to factor in the cost of the Bradleys as you implement and improve these technologies.

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