Canadian Rental Service

Editorial: May 2014

Patrick Flannery   

Features Business Intelligence

The following headline in 4-Way Rentals’ edition (The 4-Way Equipment Daily) caught my eye: “Human cashiers still trump self-checkout for most grocers.

The following headline in 4-Way Rentals’ edition (The 4-Way Equipment Daily) caught my eye: “Human cashiers still trump self-checkout for most grocers.” Why am I not surprised. Self-checkout machines are fine when they work, especially for small purchases of only a few items, but the machines are still replete with bugs. The whole process of weighing your purchases in “the bagging area” does not work very well. Heaven help you if you put your gloves or hat down there, or fail to get your item into the area fast enough. Using the self-checkout for groceries was one of the most painful checkout experiences I have ever had, and that’s saying a lot. Never again. But I suspect that even if self-checkout became as easy as having a clerk ring up your purchases, many people would still prefer the clerk.

People like people. There is something dignified about an exchange between two adults for business purposes. Value for value, money changes hands, all parties have a chance to ask questions and register their approval or disapproval with the transaction. By contrast, there is something demeaning and dehumanizing about self-checkout. For one thing, there is one less human in the equation. But the feeling is that you are being processed rather than served and that it isn’t enough that you are patronizing the store but you should do all the work to pay them as well. Then there is the terrific fun of fumbling with unfamiliar technology in public while a booming android voice broadcasts every error across 100 square yards of echoing storefront. There is just no way you get the feeling of being valued as a customer and respected as a human being from an automated till, and that is something you still might get if you are lucky from a human cashier.

Self-checkout is the latest manifestation of a long, slippery slope of declining service we have been on ever since software companies found out they could get away with not providing a location and a live human to support their products. I still remember my astonishment when I found out that there was literally nowhere I could go in Ottawa in 1992 to get in-person technical support for my malfunctioning 386 PC from an actual Microsoft employee. I had bought DOS from Microsoft in Ottawa – didn’t they have some responsibility to be able to help me there? Apparently not.  I began my long relationship with telephone tech support that day. I was almost getting used to it when the software providers decided even that was too much bother and now do everything in their power to get you to research and fix your problem yourself using arcane documents on the web.

Dale Pardy of Butler Scaffolding in Halifax put his finger on it when he described his store’s style as “personable,” and said his customers liked being called by name when they entered instead of asked for their phone number. I think it’s a principle most rental people understand very well. In fact it may well be this industry’s secret weapon against the forces in the retail and business world seeking to automate everything that can be automated and streamline service to the point where it is almost undetectable. Keep telling your customers they matter, folks, in every way you can. It costs you nothing and makes you plenty.  


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