Automation is always about cutting out human labor, but just piling it on without fully integrating it into a store's operation is bound to generate problems—in this case, potentially huge problems. No one actually backed up a truck to haul away everything in the store. But that depended on the goodwill and honesty of customers, which is not something any chain can count on. To be fair, some customers did help themselves to this week's shoplift special.
The problem surfaced at the Pak 'n Save supermarket on the morning of Good Friday, a day when New Zealand law requires most retailers to be closed. That meant no employees showed up for work. But the computer system that automatically opened the store and turned on the lights wasn't programmed to take the day off, and at 8 A.M. customers began to arrive, walked in and started shopping, according to local news reports.
Security cameras caught about two dozen customers in the aisles, apparently oblivious to the lack of store associates. And 12 of those customers successfully paid for their groceries using the store's self-checkout system. Everything worked fine sans employees until a customer was blocked after trying to buy a bottle of liquor.
That required an associate's OK. Shoppers dutifully waited in line for the associate to show up, until it eventually dawned on them that there were no associates in the store. At that point, some shoppers bagged their groceries and left without paying. Others headed back to add to their shopping carts.
Police showed up after a customer called in to report the situation. "She said people were coming out of the store with shopping trolleys full of stock and yet there were no people manning the checkouts and no one was even in the store," a police sergeant told the Waikato Times newspaper. "When we arrived, there were cars leaving all over the place. There were some people in the shop at the checkouts legitimately purchasing items and others in the store. We couldn't tell who had paid and who hadn't, and so our first priority was to close the supermarket and contact the owners."
(Note to retailers in Hamilton, New Zealand: Don't hire local police for Loss Prevention. They've never heard of receipts.)The Pak 'n Save's owner, Glenn Miller, was reportedly furious about the incident at first, but calmed down after he saw the security footage, including images of the first customer, who arrived with a young child, spent 20 minutes shopping, paid for her purchases and left. "I still think she probably doesn't know we weren't there. It is the funniest thing. You just have to laugh your head off when you watch," Miller said.
"They weren't in for a free-for-all. They were doing their normal shopping and then got to the checkout. Half of them paid and the other half thought 'This is a good deal' and walked out. I can certainly see the funny side of it, but I'd rather not have the publicity, to be honest. It makes me look a bit of a dickhead." (That's apparently a much less impolite term in New Zealand.)
Still open is the question of why the system that automatically opens the store—doors, lights and everything else that signaled to customers that the Pak 'n Save was open for business—was able to operate without human intervention.
Mis-programming a holiday isn't that surprising. It's easy to assume that someone else has already programmed "don't open this Friday" into the system, and the user interfaces for physical-plant automation are often cryptic at best. (And at a time when iPhones can't even figure out how to manage the shift to Daylight time properly, the bar for automatic scheduling of a movable religious holiday is pretty low.)
But who came up with the brilliant idea of automatically opening a store completely without human intervention? You'll always want the ability for a human manager to override the automation. But it's even more critical to be sure that the automation doesn't do its thing when there are no store personnel around. You'll never want to unlock the doors without someone on site.
There should have been a button, a switch, something that, unless it was pushed, would prevent the store-opening process from proceeding. That's the time when you want human intervention in the process.
It's nice that half the customers paid for their groceries without prompting. It's also nice that checkout automation made that possible, once they were in the door.
But it is possible for automation to be too reliable. And it's always going to be more reliable than the honesty of customers.