Have Retailers Just Been Lazy With Customer Service?

Is it me, or have retailers just been lazy with customer service over the years?  I get that we didn’t know how the arrival of the internet or mobile technology would change our lives forever.  But, can we really blame poor customer service, in a multi-channel retail world, on technology? 

Retail Theatre 

Up until the early 1900’s, the technology in stores was limited and customer service was a key component of the successful retailer.  The shop-keeper had all the products behind the counter and served each customer personally.  In the UK, Harry Selfridge transformed the shopping experience in a department store, being one of the first to develop the notion of ‘retail theatre’ in his Oxford Street store in London. 

Across the pond, in the US, something quite radical started to happen in grocery retail.  In 1916, building on the concept of retail theatre, the first Piggly Wiggly supermarket opened in Memphis, Tennessee.  The Piggly Wiggly store allowed customers to browse the products themselves, only needing to interact with the shop-keeper to ask questions and when finally paying for their chosen products. 

Changing shape of grocery 

Whilst fashion retail in-store has remained largely the same since the early days of Selfridges & Co., grocery retail has been undergoing yet another metamorphosis in stores, following the invention of the self-service checkout by David R. Humble in 1990.  The perceived benefit to the customer of a self-service checkout, is that the transaction is quicker.  Of course, the reality can be quite different for some shoppers (yes, I’m referring to the ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ problem we all know and love)! 

Efficiency aside, the most significant difference is the lack of human contact for the customer.  Are we witnessing a change driven by customers, looking for less human-contact when grocery shopping, or a change instigated by the grocers themselves, looking for operational efficiency savings? 

Vote with your feet 

On a wet day, or when you just don’t want to leave the house, there’s nothing better than indulging in a bit of online shopping, knowing that your cupboards will once-again be replenished with food and drink.  For every other day, indulge in this crazy idea for a second.  If we don’t want grocery retail to change into something we don’t like or want, start choosing to shop in the way you want to! 

If you’d prefer not to use self-service checkouts, make sure you always wait in-line for a manned till.  If you don’t want your local store to change into a faceless building only used for showcasing products for buying online, make sure you visit your store regularly.  Show them what good retail means to you as a consumer, and how customer service isn’t just about providing the mechanism, it’s about providing a service too!  Vote with your feet!! 


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