Cashiering the cashiers: false economy in hard economic times

How many times have you been in a store and thought to yourself, “I wish there were less customer service here.”

Not many, I’m guessing. It’s probably more often the case that you’ve found yourself searching for someone “who looks like they work here.”

The do-it-yourself shopping experience is all the rage these days, from restaurants to hardware stores, as more businesses encourage their patrons and shoppers to checkout and bag their own purchases, fill their own drink cups, weigh their own produce, grind their own coffee beans, etc. Not because in practice it’s necessarily faster or more convenient for shoppers, it’s just cheaper for retailers.

Now, this news: JCPenney will reportedly get rid of its checkout registers and cashiers by 2014, according to Time, because the company believes it can shave 10% from its operational cost by replacing cashiers with “technology.” (Source)

JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson is saying the retail giant can use the half-a-billion dollars it currently spends on transaction costs to improve “customer service.” But doesn’t this imply that cashiers are not “customer service?”

An important fact seems to be getting lost in this rush toward shopper convenience: Cashiers can be critical to a retailer’s success when they are properly trained and utilized.

For example, cashiers can be the first step in encouraging repeat shopping visits by informing shoppers about customer loyalty programs, by seeding news of an approaching sale, or by highlighting the arrival of some new product in the near future.

More importantly, the cashier is typically the last person that shoppers encounter as part of a retail sale and can be the most important and memorable face consumers attach to the retailer’s brand.

In many cases, the personality of a store’s employees can become, in effect, the personality of the brand, itself. (Think, that on some psychological level: Julio the friendly neighborhood barista who you talk to every day = Starbucks)

I understand that companies are being creative these days about cutting operational costs. But it’s not hard to imagine a day when brick-and-mortar stores go so far in making their stores “convenient” and “fast” for shoppers, that they surrender one of themost important elements in their entire retail marketing strategy:

Human beings.

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