Non-Fiction,  Writing

Self-Serve Kiosks Give Horrible Customer Service

There’s this really dumb joke you’ll see me post sometimes to the tune of “I’m so broke I have to do my grocery shopping in the self-checkout lane.” The reference or suggestion, of course, is that if I went to a checkout lane with a person that I’d have to scan everything, but if I’m the one doing the scanning items are going to conveniently not be scanned. In a time where self-scanning becomes increasingly prevalent, such gambits seem increasingly common and perhaps convoluted.

Measures to ensure customers aren’t gaming the system range a bit as well. On top of security cameras, asset protection, and employees that at one time ran one cash register but now oversee 5 to 8, there are more traditional measures still in place like magnets that when left activated set off alarms. My personal favorite, however, is how American grocery story Wal-Mart replaced its greeters with associate members who scan a customer’s items before they leave, to ensure “the correct price was given.” That’s a fun line, by the way; if you ask them “Well how much is this then?” without letting them see the receipt you’re bound to get a few ugly looks. The whole thing still seems weird to me; if one person can scan some items after they’ve already been scanned, they can just save the customer some time and scan them before hand, at a register.

Once I had one of these employees wave me away when I went to show them my receipt. “Everything you have is bagged,” they said. “We only need to check items that aren’t bagged.” So I guess if I really need to shoplift, I just need to ensure everything I didn’t pay for is in plastic.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if customers are already actively gaming this system, nor would I blame them. I worked for Wal-Mart for three years, back when they rolled out this program called Price Match. The concept was simple: Walmart wanted people to shop at their store so much that it made sense for them to offer products at a loss rather than allow sales at other stores. As such, customers could inform a cashier of a cheaper price for an item and if it was “within reason” the cashier would honor it.

So you’d have customers going “This is $5 at Safeway, and this is $5 and Aldi’s, and this is $5 at Schnucks, and this is $5 at IGA…”

And then as the cashier, I’d get the pleasure of saying “Ma’am, those are televisions.”

Then she’d get angry, and I’d call over a CSM (short for “Can’t Stand My-employees”) and that customer service manager would just give the lady her $5 tvs, or whatever.

It was rarely that extreme, but that’s how it worked in practice and in theory. Customers could shave hundreds off their grocery bills. Later, they’d be expected to bring in advertisements and circulars to prove their prices, and limits would be placed on sources like internet advertisements. Later still certain items, like milk, would be exempt for the program. But especially in the early days of the program, “reasonable offer” was pushed to the extreme.

I remember one distinct customer who had two baskets with her. As such it was no small feat that literally every item she wanted to purchase was on sale. This required a manual override on each item as I adjusted the price to her liking. Perhaps amusingly, sometimes the item I was price checking would be lower than the price quoted by the lady, in which case she’d shrug or shift her weight but otherwise move on to the next item. Some of the keying is rather specific, like when ringing up meat I need to change the price per pound instead of the price of the final product.

You would think that this customer would be content getting a discount on what felt like half the store, but oh no, she was in a hurry. So in between literally, and I do mean literally, attempting to change the price on each and every item? She would also make a statement on trying to get me to bag faster, to scan faster. This was especially fun towards the second basket, where I was keying in things like meat, which required a few more keystrokes than usual. “Can’t you go any faster?” “I can tell why they pay you the big bucks.” “This is ridiculous, you are going so slow.” At first I tried to apologize in between scanning things, but it just got to the point where I smiled and continued to do my job, as that is what you do when you’ve done this work as long as I have and take some pride in your customer service skills. It did not relent, however! “That’s $12 a pound at (store), and you really shouldn’t be taking this long. If I were going this slow at my job, I’d be fired by now.” “Seriously – and that’s $5 at, uh, (store) – could you possibly go any slower?”

I was absolutely proud of how I handled myself. Nothing short of the best customer service. But then, something AMAZING happened.

So in the middle of her second cart, she had grabbed a couple of stuffed animals that were near one of the entrances as part of a seasonal promotion. These were not cheap; if I remember correctly, they were like $36.99 or $39.99 each. And this lady says “And those are $20 at (some store. I remember she said $20, but not the store.)”

“Well I apologize ma’am,” I say as I brace myself, “but you must be mistaken. These stuffed animals are a franchise exclusive. I’m afraid I can’t discount them further.” I raised the tag to show where it said, in bold black letters along with the price, “THIS STORE DOT COM.”

You would have thought I kicked this lady’s infant into the pathway of a speeding bus. “ARE YOU CALLING ME A LIAR?! I KNOW FOR A FACT” blah blah blah. She doubles down, triples down even, and wants to speak with a manager. Which sucks, because if you know anything about working retail, it’s that no matter what you are doing the management NEVER has the side of the employee. Ever. Especially this particular establishment.

But something quite surprising happens. I expect to get visited by the roving manager, who would probably just agree with the lady and tell me to accept it. Or perhaps by the Cashier Manager proper. Instead, by some strange luck of fate, I get the HEAD MANAGER HIMSELF. Dear God I’m getting fired now, I figure.

Except after listening to this lady breathlessly scream about how I “called her a liar” and had “such an attitude” just calmly said “He is right though. We sell these for (price), and they are labeled as a product distributed to this store. I’m unable to sell it to you at discount.”And she starts to double down, wanting to speak to HIS manager. Asset Protection is off to the side watching this whole thing. A few other managers are aware of this screaming, indignant lady.

The head manager has been looking over other price changes on her almost $600 bill. “It looks like our cashier has been generous in accepting your word for discounts as it is. I will tell you what, if it means that much to you, we’ll call (that store) and if they confirm they sell an item like this for $20, then we’ll add it.”

Customer went whiter than a school shooter. Backpedaled just a little; she no longer wanted them, or appreciated the way she was treated. Still was willing to pay for the rest of her items, some of which she still sparingly attempted to justify a lower price for despite so many eyes on her. I still honored those prices, with the Head Manager looking over. Cashed her out, she takes her two carts, one in front of her and one in back. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” she says as she breathily leaves.

I never see her again after that. I get written up cashier side for “poor performance” because I should have called a manager over sooner to handle so many overrings and to handle such a customer. Asset Protection informs me that next time someone tries abusing the system like that to use the phone to call them over; if it’s enough and there’s some evidence they have some options (not many though; there is a policy, and by changing the prices I’m agreeing to it.)

Looking back at customers like that, maybe it’s a good thing that self-checkout is becoming such a thing. Let the customer argue with machines, haha. I can also see why that program was eventually phased out, first folded into their “Savings Catcher” program and later scrapped in its entirety.

Or maybe the program was never truly scrapped, and the reasons items aren’t getting scanned properly and paid for is because they are $0 at some other store somewhere.

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