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.

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