Bills and Shopping: The Rise of the Machines

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

It’s not that I don’t like banks, or that I’m in some way un-British and avoid queuing it’s just that I don’t like being required to go out on some cold, damp Saturday morning when I’d rather be sat by the heater reading.  This is why most of my bills are sorted out by Direct Debit, even my credit card which is paid automatically every month – as it’s exclusively for online use rather than credit as such.

However there is one, variable bill which I don’t do this way – the electricity bill, because I don’t want them taking the money if they’ve over-estimated it.  So once a quarter I trudge to the bank.  The last couple of times I’ve been intercepted in the queue and guided to the paying-in ATM which can, I am assured, be used to pay bills and sure enough it did, it scanned the bill, took the details from my card and printed me a receipt.  It lacked the friendly hellos and brief chatter of talking to a teller but it did its stuff efficiently without having to wait with the other customers and their queries that computers can’t resolve (yet).  It’s amazing what technology can do isn’t it.

When it works.

This time I queued for the ATM, a member of staff asked if I was OK with doing it myself, “yes,” I replied, proudly, stopping short of continuing with “fear not, I have done this before”.  The woman ahead of me was though clearly having trouble paying a cheque in and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the machine.  Some people would have been mortified at causing a delay for others.  When she went in search of a real person I approached the anonymous grey box, inserted my card and then my payment slip which it chewed a little, thought about and then spat back out at me.

The member of staff who had by now redirected the cheque woman to a teller dashed over, I tried again but still it said it was having trouble reading the slip.  “Oh,” said the smart-suited bank woman “I think it has trouble with the new smaller payment slips.”  Right, so it’s the electricity company’s fault.  I was redirected to the queue for the tellers too, while reflecting that it’s lucky there were still real people present to do the job. The banks say this is to do with improving customers’ experiences, to reduce waiting times and so on.  A while later a man ahead of me was plucked from the queue and escorted to the same ATM, poor unsuspecting soul, like something out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four he walked by, towards the room 101 of automated banking technology, “good luck” I silently whispered.

It’s becoming ever more common though, in the supermarket there have been self-service checkouts for a while, and now the incredible sounding Hybrid Checkouts – you get your own conveyor belt to play with, like your own Generation Game.  A tin of beans.  A lettuce.  A cuddly toy…

I like checkouts with people on them, you can say hello, chat a little, they do all the scanning stuff.  I know someone who can scan goods quickly, accurately and have a riveting conversation with you at the same time, all you get from a Hybrid Checkout is the infamous “unknown item in the bagging area” message.  Which is a further complication – having to precisely place your items in your bag instead of lobbing them in haphazardly.

They say it’s quicker, denying the accusations that it’s to do with saving on the costs of staff, as do the banks.  They encourage you to use them, “it’s for your own good” they virtually scream as they drag you by the basket towards the robot cashiers while you whimper “but I want to talk to the nice lady on till nine.”  I have been known to linger at the end of an aisle, apparently choosing coffee until I see a gap on a conveyor then dump my groceries onto it before they can have my basket away from me.  True story.

I’ve seen people using the Hybrids, repeatedly scanning a loaf of bread while looking around for help.  My friend on the till would have scanned it first time.  If you’ve got alcohol or something else that needs authorisation then you’re left waiting until an assistant can come and release you back into the community from whence you wandered, happy and smiling, ten minutes earlier.  Just nipping in for a bottle of wine and a curry you said.  Now you need something more substantial.  “What kept you?” your partner says as you get into the car.  You mumble something about bloody technology and drive home, which is something that, for now, you can still enjoy doing yourself.

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