Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

World of self service surges ahead

Self-checkout units will be extended beyond supermarkets and airports into hotels, banking and freight.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Self-checkout units will be extended beyond supermarkets and airports into hotels, banking and freight. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The number of self-checkout machines in New Zealand will increase by half this year - the first wave of technology which is set to forever change our daily interactions.

NCR, which makes 99 per cent of self-checkout machines seen in New Zealand, says more advanced technology will arrive here soon.

By year's end, the United States company, which has offices in Sydney, will have more than 10,000 self-checkouts across Australasia.

"Staff are the best providers of service, of creating a relationship. But staff also give you an opportunity to stuff it up," said Phil Chant, marketing manager for NCR Australia.

"You could get someone on their off day. But self-service gives you consistency of service. It gives you speed."

According to NCR, that self-service uniformity will soon extend far beyond the supermarket or airport.

Its machines will see Kiwis able to check in to a hotel, weigh and send a package - even open a bank account by talking to a live video feed of a teller on an ATM screen.

Interactive Teller ATMs are already in use in the US.

"Let's say you were out late and lost your card. You could touch an ATM screen, be put through to a teller, and say, 'I need $100 for a cab'," Mr Chant said.

"And the teller would take you through security questions, get you to sign on the scanner - check it matches the file - and dispense the money."

But, said Mr Chant, the real driver of change is the smartphone.

NCR is working on ATM technology which would allow people to start a transaction on their mobile phone.

"I can pick the account, that I want $40, and then I just go up to an ATM, scan my phone, and the cash is immediately dispensed," Mr Chant said.

A MasterCard and ANZ trial enabling retail payments with a mobile phone, using the near-field communication (NFC) contactless payment technology, is also under way in New Zealand.

The rise of mobile has seen retailers provide Wi-Fi to win back customers and combat online competitors.

Traditional retailers have been hurt by "showrooming" - when shoppers try out items instore then find a better price online.

It has been encouraged by online retailers such as Amazon.com, whose Price Check app allows people to scan barcodes to find a better price on its website.

But a US startup called Nearbuy Systems is now piloting technology that enables retailers to use Wi-Fi and CCTV to track to within a metre customers who have opted in.

NCR has a relationship with Nearbuy and Mr Chant said Australian retailers had expressed interest in the technology.

It would enable them to build apps to guide customers through their store aisles to specific products, and build profiles of their shopping habits.

It could even deliver discounts to mobiles based on where people are standing in any particular store.

"I might be in front of brands of pasta. And combining the fact that the shop knows I normally buy pasta, well, how about sending me a promo for a new product," Mr Chant said.

Technology commentators in the US have said such advances tread a fine line between convenience and creepy.

But John Albertson, chief executive of the NZ Retailers' Association, said his members had little choice but to adapt.

"We're not going to hold the tide back. Consumers are in the driving seat, because what they've got now is a computer in their pocket.

"You've got to give them a compelling reason to stop and make that purchase right now, rather than ordering it online and getting it three days later."

But the self-service revolution has its limits - in May, the Warehouse announced it was scrapping its self-service checkouts.

At the time, chief executive Mark Powell told the Herald that larger items weren't as compatible with the machines, nor were those with security tags.

Mr Powell said the question of whether self-service had brought an increase in shoplifting was "a point of internal dispute" within the company.

Mr Chant maintained shoplifting did not increase with self-service machines, and said staff were actually three times as likely not to scan an item than a shopper.

But he said the technology was not "build it and they will come".

"You need to have staff members to help and coax people to use it. And to sort out problems.

"Typically someone becomes an expert at self-service 1.6 times after using it. And if it takes any longer than that, they will not go back to it."

The Countdown supermarket chain, which has 182 self-service machines, says their introduction will have no effect on staffing levels.

Mr Chant agreed, but said people already expected the convenience of the mechanical.

"The consumer is calling the shots. I can't imagine going into a supermarket for a tube of toothpaste and having to queue behind five trolleys."

- NZ Herald

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