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Making the customer do the work: A self-checkout machine in a supermarket

William Henry Smith made his fortune by selling newspapers on railway stations. You produced a Victorian penny and exchanged it for The Times. His successors have found a way of making this more difficult. You press numerous buttons and, if you get it right, a recorded voice thanks you for using Fast Track. The customer has been made to do the work.

Businesses of all sorts have been hurrying to do this. The latest convert is London Underground, which plans to close all or nearly all of its booking offices. Tickets? Let the customer use the machines. They can read the instructions. The supermarkets are well forward with their elaborate check-out desks. They keep a few tills but are in no hurry to staff them. The airlines have been training their customers, and Ryanair positively requires them to do the work. If they get it wrong — well, tough.

For the banks, it has been a mixed blessing. They were quick to work out what they could save on cashiers' wages if customers no longer came in to cash their cheques. So the customers learned to get money out of machines, which the banks provided free of charge, while the branches sold unwanted services and ran up bills for compensation. Not a brilliant business model. Some of their customers might have known better.

Barclays now says that its branches will provide nesting boxes for "digital eagles". These are instructors, who will help you to master online and mobile banking. In this way more customers will learn to do the work. Those who are slow or reluctant learners can stand at the back of the queue. That will teach them.

 
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