Monday, July 22, 2024
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The supermarket that’s bringing back human beings


THE major supermarkets continue in their quest to introduce groundbreaking technology into their stores. Tesco (300,000+ employees) is spearheading this drive with its latest offering. It is trialling ‘magic tills’ that enable customers to pick up their groceries, drop them in their basket and proceed to the tills, where they are presented with their list of purchases which they can check and pay for. No staff are involved.

The technology may not be as advanced at the other supermarket big players (Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Waitrose and M&S) but they are also getting rid of the human element in their stores as quickly as possible. Staff are just financial costs to be eradicated in the drive to enhance profits. Does it matter whether this destroys staff loyalty and customer relations? Does it take into account what customers want? And how about the increase in theft, and violence towards the remaining staff? The trend to turn supermarket shopping into an automated, dehumanised, soulless experience is seen as progress.

So this is the future of how we will be buying our groceries soon enough. Or is it?

The ‘David’ against the ‘Goliaths’ in this narrative is called Booths. It is a Preston-based chain of quality supermarkets founded in 1847 by one Edwin Henry Booth, and remains a private limited company. The chairman is Edwin J Booth, the founder’s great-great-grandson. It has 28 branches across the North of England with around 5,000 employees. It has been described as the ‘Waitrose of the North’ and makes great play on its sourcing of local produce.

Booths has made the headlines recently because of its decision to go against the trend and dispense with self-service tills in all but two of its stores. 

The Booths decision has even been reported in the United States, where several supermarket chains including Walmart, Costco and Wegmans are also rethinking their hi-tech checkout policies.

It is encouraging therefore to see a supermarket chain, albeit a smaller one, challenging the much bigger competition head-on.

Not being a stranger to my nearest Booths (Ilkley in West Yorkshire), I decided to ask to see the manager so that I could talk to him in person about how the revised policy was going down with staff and customers. News on the internet and in the press is one thing, talking to people at the ‘coalface’ is another.

Paul was a charming man and only too happy to talk to me. The store was busy, with six tills staffed and a good buzz around the place. I fired many questions at him and here’s a brief resume of what he told me.

Since the announcement of staffed tills the store has had a noticeable increase in footfall. Customers are coming from far afield to shop. Booths has always maintained a policy of not reducing staff because of automation (internal transfers and redeployment being offered if and when necessary), hence employee turnover is low and loyalty high. Booths is seen as a company where you can make a long-term career secure in the knowledge that employees are valued. Shoplifting, although it does happen, is low probably due to the numbers of staff present. Unlike the big players, who are driving towards cashless payment, cash is accepted at every till, and the plastic till shields erected during covid are being taken down.

Paul has had many compliments and words of encouragement from customers of other supermarkets who are fed up with being treated like automatons. Many have told him that it is great to have an interface with staff and other customers; this is particularly in evidence amongst older people, many of whom see their shopping as a social outing. The chain’s commitment to local suppliers of high repute supplying only the best foods and ingredients is paramount and encourages good business relationships.

Paul’s enthusiasm was evident in both his manner and attitudes, and I left Booths in high spirits. I had a positive feeling that more and more people are recognising that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. I’m also reminded and cheered by the fact that David was a puny individual compared with Goliath, and we all know how that turned out.

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Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins is a furniture designer/maker who loves to write.

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