How Britain became a self-service nation

Automated tills have changed the way we shop for ever. Dan Hancox explains how stores and supermarkets have turned us all into their willing workers

Piggly Wiggly seems like an inadequately serious name to associate with a revolution. But it was this American grocery chain that, in 1916, began a process of transformation we take for granted today – the self-service revolution. Patented by its founder, entrepreneur Clarence Saunders, as the "self-serving store", it is easy to forget in 2011 that all our daily bread – and milk, eggs, meat, vegetables, and dishwasher powder – was served to us by other human beings. In the process of making customers pick their own purchases off the shelves, Saunders' innovation eventually contributed to the dizzying array of personal brand choices we are now compelled to make, and the modern, demographically targeted advertising, and sophisticated market research that goes with it.

The end-point of this journey, for the loneliness of the middle-distance shopper, is a supermarket trip which involves no interaction with other human beings whatsoever: a population for whom a robot-voice chanting "unexpected item in the bagging area" has become the rage-inducing mantra of 21st-century shopping. According to analysts Retail Banking Research (RBR), 15,000 self-service tills will be in operation in the UK by the end of this year – more than double the number in use at the end of 2009. Invented by an American called Dr Howard Schneider, who called them "service robots", they were first used in the Price Chopper in Clifton Park, in upstate New York, in 1992, but it is only now their numbers are skyrocketing, predominantly in the US and Western Europe, which account for 99 per cent of the global market. The RBR report suggests sales of the machines are expected to increase fourfold between 2008 and 2014, from 93,000 to 430,000.

Britain is very much following an American lead in this area – just as it did with the supermarket itself. The process took some time to spread from its beginnings at the Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee, to British high streets, but after Lord Sainsbury visited the United States and saw how much time and money could be saved by having customers do their own shopping, he imported it to Britain, and the Croydon branch of Sainsbury's was converted to a self-serving shop in 1950. Initial fears within the sector were that, just as with the self-service tills in 2011, it would lead to a loss of jobs. And the same sense of rage at the 21st-century "service robots" was there too: one customer, a judge's wife, threw a wire basket at Lord Sainsbury and swore violently at him, when she saw she was required to do the job of a shop assistant. For a while, customers were guided around the shelves by an employee, known as "the hostess", in order to alleviate the anxiety of being lost in this bewildering new environment.

Once such a dramatic change has established itself, it's difficult to imagine it was any different – but the switch to self-service shopping was not a quick and easy conversion; even as late as 1963, only 13,000 of the 580,000 shops operating in the UK were self-service. It took a while for Brits to come around to the idea of losing these personal relationships. The Times reported in 1972 that BP marketing men had seen a customer reading the instructions on their new self-service petrol pump several times, scratch his head, push a pound note up the nozzle, and shout at the pump through cupped hands: "Four gallons of commercial, please."

Eventually, the mould set, and behavioural, not to mention age and class, obstacles dissolved amid wider cultural transformations, Britons became more used to the autonomy of serving themselves. The Australian academic Kim Humphreys observed in the 1990s that while self-service shopping meant people were treated more equally, it was also forcing them further apart from one another. "As self-service spaces became larger and more numerous, class divisions between customers came to be seemingly irrelevant, mirroring the increasing separation of the product from its conditions of production, and the increasing separation of people within the self-service store."

It is only now that this process reaches its natural conclusion with the astonishing proliferation of self-service checkouts – according to NCR, which manufactures the majority of machines used by British companies, a third of customers are now using them when presented with the choice. There have been teething problems: the machines have been open to card fraud, and make theft much easier – and one Scottish politician has also recently expressed concern that they make it easier for under-age shoppers to buy alcohol. The argument that they make shopping quicker is also far from settled. A survey last year for the trade publication The Grocer found that the average time spent waiting at a staffed checkout had risen over two years in Tesco and Sainsbury's, but fallen in Morrisons and Asda, which use many fewer of the machines. But even if they don't actually lead to shorter queue times, according to one supplier, it doesn't matter, because they seem quicker, thanks to a process called "wait-warping". "Because they're actively involved," Lee Holman from retail technology group IHL explains, "it seems like it takes less time."

The march of machine-operated convenience has infiltrated other aspects of everyday life, from self-service post offices to check-in kiosks in airports and hospitals – "simply touch the image of the human body where it hurts," explained Time magazine, listing self-service technology as one of its "10 ideas that are changing the world". Several bastions of social life are being dehumanised too. In 2009, Leicestershire County Council introduced automatic checkouts in 16 of its libraries, aimed at saving tens of thousands of pounds, but also leading to 19 redundancies. "Lots of staff feared for their jobs because of cuts," one library assistant said at the time, "but no one dreamt they would be replaced by a machine."

It is in the retail sector where the rise of the machines has really flourished, and it's not restricted to supermarkets: they are cropping up in WH Smith's, Ikea and Boots, while last week it was announced that 3,000 Costa Express vending machines would be introduced over the next five years. Obviously coffee machines aren't new – but taking the branded, high-end experience and rendering it self-service is. Boots, which has the machines in more than 30 stores, said the aim was "to increase the number of places they can pay, rather than decrease the number of colleagues we have on hand". The supermarkets tell a similar story, saying the machines offer greater customer choice while freeing up employees to work in other parts of the store.

The unions aren't worried about the checkout robots stealing their members' jobs – not yet, anyway. John Hannett, general secretary of the shop-workers' Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, said it had not seen any indication that it was causing job losses at the checkouts; its main concern was "till rage", something most of us will have already felt, or experienced. "It's becoming a flashpoint for customers expressing anger at our members," Hannett says – especially when shops require one member of staff to cover more than four tills. Outside the Haringey branch of Sainsbury's in north London, two employees on their way from work nod wearily at this. "People can get angry with the machines, so instead they shout at us," says one man in early middle-age, who asked not to be named.

The revolution at the tills is all about providing more choice, the British Retail Consortium emphasises: because that's what the customer always wants, more choice – of what to buy, where to buy it, and now more than ever, how to buy it – and empowerment through choice is the mantra of modern commerce as much as it is in politics. Faced with the two-way choice at the supermarket till, people seem to fall into two broad personality types: those whose technophobia or volume of shopping makes the self-service machines a source of anger and frustration, which turns them towards the staffed checkouts; and those who can't bear the surliness or inanity of interacting with checkout staff, and want to be left to contemplate the meaning and value of a pack of flapjacks in solitude.

Both of these rationales seem tobe negative responses – choosing the least-worst option – but just how miserable is the modern grocery shopping experience? In a survey conducted by consumer website last July, in which customers were asked to nominate the worst thing about shopping in supermarkets, 73 per cent said self-service tills. Intriguingly, the second-most unpopular aspect of the experience was "other customers", cited by 65 per cent of those polled, while 51 per cent also nominated "unhelpful staff".

"It is notable that 'other customers' made the number two 'most hated' spot," said the website's director, Mark Pearson: "It seems that customers would ideally like a completely isolated shopping experience – perhaps the reason why a lot are turning to buying their groceries online." Now he would say that, running an online shopping website – but it's his comment about a completely isolated shopping experience that hits home.

Can it be that, as some Marxists might argue, frustration and loneliness actually drive modern consumer capitalism? For Professor Leigh Sparks, at the University of Stirling's Institute for Retail Studies, it's important that a certain level of consumer contentment is maintained. "The churn that affects employment in this part of the retail sector affects customers, too – if they have a bad experience once, they'll go to another chain, and that time, they might stay there. Keeping customers satisfied enough to come back is important."

In 2009, Tesco opened its first UK branch at which service robots were the only option at the checkout, in Kingsley, Northampton – its US chain, Fresh & Easy, already operates several branches like this. I called up the Tesco branch several times to see if a human being could give me a sense of how convivial, and human, the atmosphere is there. On each occasion, the phone rang, and rang, and rang, and finally rang out. I sighed, and put the phone down. Maybe that means they're doing well.

Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Executive Assistant/Events Coordinator - Old Street, London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Executive Assistant/Event...

HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

Derivatives Risk Commodities Business Analyst /Market Risk

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Derivatives Risk Commodities Business A...

Power & Gas Business Analyst / Subject Matter Expert - Contract

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Power & Gas Business Analyst/Subject Ma...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering