Report: Self-Service To Account For More Than A Half-Trillion Dollars In 2007

The one-size fits all approach is very hard to resist. It sings of convenience and a hassle-free shopping effort. In retail, it's more often than not a myth.

I learned that the hard way when we were buying clothes for my daughter, when she was quite young. It seemed odd how very young girls were wearing two-piece bathing suits until someone explained it was one of the few garments for that age that truly was one-size-fits-all. (To a point.)

The one-size fits all strategy also fails when used by retailers to police retailers. The PCI credit card security standard is fighting to overcome retail resistance and a surprisingly high percentage of its problems result from a one-size-fits-all mentality. Any group that can include Wal-Mart, HomeDepot, 7-Eleven and Bill's Hardware Store (down the street from me. Really nice guy) and tries to impose a single set of security rules on all of them is asking for consistency troubles.

The same problem exists today for Web analystics. Recent changes by Nielsen/NetRatings and ComScore are shifting the focus away from "number of pageviews" to "how much time the visitor spent on the site." Given techniques today that allow multples pages to be shown without a click, the idea is not a bad one. But lumping all Websites into one category and making the change for them all is a really bad idea.

For almost all information-intensive and entertainment sites, a visitor that stays a long time is probably a very happy visitor. But what about a research site? A lengthy stay might mean that the visitor is having a hard time finding the answer they seek.

For an E-Commerce site, that long visit might mean a lot of unhappiness. Heck, it might even mean a terrible and convoluted layout and design, plus very slow page response times. Long visits can mean very different things depending on the nature of the site.

Another wonderful example of the flaw of the "one size fits all" rationale comes from a new report about the self-service/self-checkout space.

North American shoppers are on track to spend more than $525 billion at self-checkout lanes, ticketing kiosks and other self-service machines in 2007, an increase from $438 billion in 2006, according to a new study from the IHL Consulting Group. The firm predicts that self-service revenue will increase another 18 percent next year, eventually topping $1.3 trillion by 2011.

But IHL President Greg Buzek took the results one step further, saying that consumers not only use the systems, but actually want them. ?Consumers enjoy self-service and increasingly seek out retailers that offer the technology,? Buzek said.

Not necessarily. In hardware environments?consider Home Depot?the accuracy and speed are not discouraging factors and the customers tend to embrace them. But in grocery environment, I must respectfully disagree with Greg. In talking with an awful lot of grocery consumers, self-checkout lanes are generally avoided and are the checkout option of last resort. They may use it?and that use will undoubtedly increase?but suggesting that grocery consumers are happy about it seems quite a stretch.

Greg himself concedes that his survey didn't differentiate the kind of retailer being considered in the question, so the answers can't be segmented that way. By mixing them together, it prevents any analysis of how self-checkout is likely to be received for any particular retailer.

Is self-checkout dramatically more efficient for the retailer? Absolutely. Does it necessarily represent a downgrade in customer service? That's a trickier question.

I think it's without dispute that the way it's executed by many chains?especially grocers?is absolutely a reduction in customer service, in the same way that self-service in gas stations represented a major customer service reduction for those retailers.

I happen to be based in a state (New Jersey ? please, no jokes) that forbids "pump your own gas" efforts. But the net effect has been that gas station attendants pump gas but have done away with what used to be typical services. I can't remember the last time I bought gas and was asked if I wanted to have my oil checked, let alone see my windshields (front and back) cleaned without anyone being asked. (Uh-oh. I'm starting to sound like Andy Rooney. I better get back to geek talk.)

So, yes, the way it's typically executed, self-checkout often does lead to reduced customer service. But it certainly doesn't have to mean that. Information kiosks?strategically placed and intelligently programmed?can indeed make customers feel valued and can sometimes help them make purchase decisions in a way that typical store associates couldn't.

Like everyone else in retail tech, it comes down to the thought, creativity and effort that goes into the technology?as opposed to the technology itself?that will determine whether your customers embrace it, are repelled by it or choose to live with it.