If Natasha were to step back and take stock of the whole process of food shopping, she would soon come to the conclusion that the next hour of her life will be mostly wasted. Thankfully for the Supermarkets, the vast majority of people don’t question the process.
After rumbling her wonky trolley through the doors she’s immediately bombarded with advertising, special offers and the inevitable presence of a security guard. The guard, Jimmy, spends around 50% of his shift standing behind a console where he pretends to watch the CCTV cameras in action. In reality it’s not uncommon for the CCTV system to be out of order, leaving Jimmy to act out this charade with little chance of actually spotting a shoplifter.
Natasha uses all of her will to skip the promotional isle without bundling in pounds worth of goods she didn’t intend on buying.
Others aren’t so lucky. Tom has been stood at the specials section for a few minutes now shovelling special offer cleaning products in to his basket. He’s buying more than he intended to, but the look on his face suggests that he’s getting a bargain. Tom is being blindsided by colourful tickets that suggest he’s getting value for money. Fortunately for the supermarket Tom is not questioning the pricing or the use of colourful tickets. Instead he’s added two bottles of washing up liquid to his trolley at a price of £2 for both. The bright yellow ticket has told him it’s buy one get one free.
The Buy One Get One Free offers have generated millions of pounds of revenue for supermarkets for many years now. It’s a tried and tested strategy for selling more goods, sometimes at a higher price than they may have previously been on sale for. Tom doesn’t realise this though, neither does Maureen who is chuffed that her favourite dishwasher tablets are also on BOGOF.
On the cleaning product isle though both of them may find a better value product. Whilst Tom and Maureen are falling for these pricing strategies, so too is Natasha. She has spotted a colourful label suggesting that she can buy two packs of big brand crisps for just £3.00. She adds them to her trolley and moves off down the structured journey the consultants have deemed best for maximising supermarket profits. If Natasha, and a thousand other people like her, had read the label closer she would have spotted that the crisps were £1.50 per pack anyway.
Next up comes the non-food isles where Supermarkets have seen a massive growth in sales. DVDs, CDs, kettles, toasters and a whole host of computing equipment in dazzlingly displayed with yet more colourful labels.
Natasha breezes past, resisting the urge to add a cheap CD to her trolley and then on to the health and beauty sections. She is now presented with the option to buy pharmaceutical products, prescription glasses, clothes, and because it’s November, fireworks too.
During a shopping trip like this Natasha will most likely suffer from ‘Decision Fatigue’, where her brain is being asked to make hundreds of decisions about whether she should buy something or not. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Decisions that today, thankfully, she is finding easier to answer than usual. On a typical shopping trip Natasha would have her three year old son Zack with her. Zack puts even further demands on her regarding buying decisions. Today though, Zack is out with his Daddy, shopping for a new TV in a popular high street electrical shop. Hence Natasha has the BMW. A concern going through her head is whether or not all of this shopping will fit in the boot. She loves this car, but it’s not always the most practical of things.
Natasha has already spent 15 minutes shopping and she hasn’t added anything to her trolley that she has on her shopping list. Creating a shopping list has been a ritual for Natasha for some time now. In a sense it’s a way of restricting how much she spends, at least that’s the idea. The reality is, like many, she is tricked in to adding a lot more than she really needs.
The process of food shopping is stacked in the favour of those who provide the service. You may argue this is right, but in an age where technology is changing the face of industries, it’s only a matter of time until it changes the face of grocery shopping too. This change will likely appear, apparently, out of nowhere. In reality the signs are already here and many in the industry are simply choosing to ignore them.
On the fruit isle she encounters what looks like an army of home delivery food shoppers. They make it hard for Natasha to get her shopping done as they frantically push their oversized trolleys against strict time constraints set by someone in head office; most likely in some spreadsheet driven, cost control centre.
Tammy though is unlike some of her colleagues. She has taken customer service to heart and although she always meets her time constraints, she is still able to get her customers the freshest and best quality products, not just the ones that fall easily to hand.
She’s one of the declining few who see their jobs as giving excellent customer service. Tammy has spent her time learning where products are, rather than simply relying on a machine. Tammy quickly realised that frustrated customers would often ask her where something is only to find out that she didn’t know. Now she often has to deal with other home shopping pickers who have been asked where something is, but don’t know. They all seek out Tammy. Tammy makes the lives of lost shoppers a whole lot better.
In a world of modern tech and expensive logistics it’s a surprise that not every supermarket hasn’t built gigantic stores in the middle of nowhere, with cheap rent and good roads, where armies of employees and machines can pick products from shelves that aren’t open to the public. Some companies have gone down this route, but the majority clog up the isles of their publicly open supermarkets instead. The cost is epic to build these giant automated stores, but what’s the cost of filling regular stores with disgruntled, time measured employees?
Natasha is now destined to meet many of the home shopping pickers on each isle throughout the rest of her shopping trip. She has inadvertently synced her shopping routine with them and will no doubt keep pace for some time, probably until the fresh meat isle at least. Throughout her shopping experience Natasha, like almost every other customer, rarely notices the almost never ending use of the public address system. She missed the “Code 15″ announcement which is secret code for “SHOPLIFTERS!". The “Chickens going cheap" announcement by the cheeky student Martin bypasses her entirely as she focuses on adding yet more special offers and bright coloured ticket items in to her trolley. She didn’t even chuckle when the checkout supervisor, Pete, struggled to get his message about Christmas opening hours out in 5 attempts.
In an age of eco-living Natasha has her bags for life hung on her trolley. They are getting in the way, but it’s a price to pay for thinking of the environment. Of course, she also now has to pay 5p per bag anyway, so the bags for life are a wise investment. Little does she realise that the store itself is using more natural resources than she ever would do in carrier bags. Every little helps though and she’s proud to be carrying her own bags and doing her bit.
As she peruses the pasta shelves she becomes aware of the disastrous use of pricing tickets in this store. For the one bag of wholewheat pasta she is looking at she sees 5 tickets. Two are turned the wrong way around to hide the prices, but the others are adding to the confusion. Three price tickets each showing a different price for one single bag of pasta.
Natasha is one of the growing number of people who is not particularly price conscious. If she wants to eat something then she will buy it. Her shopping list is used a way of stopping rogue items entering the trolley and adding to the growing food bills for her family, but on individual items she wants to eat, she’s typically not looking at the price. Except when there are three prices to choose from.
The consequences of there being three prices is not just the confusion Natasha is experiencing. There is also a carbon footprint cost to this. A cost in both resources and cold hard cash. Executives are aware of how much these tickets costs but for reasons they aren’t changing the system. Innovation doesn’t seem to come easy within the Supermarket. With the age of digital and modern solar powered tech it’s entirely possible to have centrally controlled digital ticket systems. These e-ink tickets could be driven from a central computer ensuring one ticket per product and hopefully, the right price too, all governed from a central control platform, maybe even at head office. With a low carbon footprint they would make an ideal replacement for paper tickets and the overheads they bring. Of course, there’s an initial cost to installing that which is likely helping to make decisions for the supermarket.
Tech that aids customer experience is slow to filter in to supermarkets, yet modern checkouts and self service machines are appearing all of the time. Natasha hates these self service machines, as does her husband, yet they use them when they can, simply because there are fewer person operated checkouts in use now. They are indeed quicker, but that has a direct trade off towards customer experience. Despite the poor experience Natasha will continue to use them though.
Natasha grabs the pasta anyway after vaguely remembering that there were some price scanning machines dotted around the store. As it happens the machines are switched off but Natasha won’t know that until she gets to them. The machines didn’t prove as successful nor robust as expected, so most are simply turned off rather than removed. In hindsight you could suggest that the machines were trying to solve an endemic problem; incorrect, or non-existent pricing on goods. If every item had an accurate price would you need the machines? It’s a solution to a failure elsewhere.
It’s just gone 9:15 am in this store on a Sunday yet it’s still busy. On any other day of the week Natasha could have arrived even earlier to shop through the early hours of the morning, but due to Sunday trading hours she’s doesn’t have that option. In a world where 24/7 “always-on" is the norm, it seems archaic for shops to only open for about 6 hours on a Sunday. Despite this Trading Law, the store does still open at 9am but wont take any payments until 10am, something which is not very heavily communicated resulting in frustrated customers expecting to buy before the curfew lifts.
At the end of the bread and dried fruit isle, Natasha is nearly side swiped by someone bucking the system. Tyler is a maverick in the world of supermarket shopping. He’s part of a small demographic that the marketers and consultants don’t often feature in plans and strategies. Tyler operates through the supermarket in the order of his list, not the order the consultants suggest drives more profit. He’ll move along the central isle that cuts across the store and dive down isles to complete his randomly written list. It’s not efficient but it’s a style that suits Tyler. He only buys from the list, nothing more, nothing less, unless of course it’s not in stock which is often the case when he shops on a Sunday.
Natasha is now growing increasingly bored by the shopping and by the time she reaches the fresh meat isle she is starting to lose the home delivery pickers. They have charged ahead against strict time constraints.
Duncan is stacking fresh pork pies and pasties as Natasha passes by. He’s working with Riley and the two of them are having a lewd conversation about what they got up to the night before.
This annoys Natasha but is not to be unexpected.
All too often she hears staff talking about things she wouldn’t expect them to talk about in front of customers. Behind the scenes though it’s clear the management are not instilling the concept that each employee is a representative for the company. This too is clear to Mike Wellington who has just had a verbal disagreement with an employee who felt it was OK to park in the parent and child spaces.
Tom who is collecting trolleys, but normally works on the deli counter, feels the same way and is not shy in letting customers know it’s the management’s fault. Bradley the manager has called Tom on this several times, often in front of customers and often with language that most customers wouldn’t expect to hear on the shop floor, let alone from the manager to his staff.
Today though Duncan is relieved to be stacking pork pies with Riley as it means he’s on the early shift. Deena is taking over for the afternoon shift. She doesn’t actually mind it. Duncan hates the afternoon shift because of the bargain hunters, who turn up a few minutes before the store closes, trying to snaffle the already reduced goods at even cheaper prices. There is often heavy handed pushing and fighting over the reduced goods.
Not everything gets sold though and it’s someones job in the warehouse to scan everything before throwing it in the bin each morning. It’s not a small job. It sometimes takes two people as there’s so much of it. Mostly it is bread and cooked meat, but sometimes it is beers and wines and sweets. None of this food is given to charities or homeless shelters even though it’s perfectly edible, something which would infuriate Natasha greatly if she knew.
Natasha volunteers 4 hours of her week time in the local “rehouse" shelter. Although they receive ample food from smaller businesses in the local area, they would openly welcome more food from the food giants on the outskirts. More food would mean they could feed more people, or at least vary the offerings. It would be rare for them to not use any offerings they were given.
It’s the code checker, Tena, who is responsible for all goods being kept in date, but in a store with millions of product lines this is a tough job. Help is often not forthcoming, especially from the dry goods department leads. It’s not uncommon for a customer to buy something that is out of date, or nearing it’s end of shelf life. This becomes a problem for the hard working Tena.
As Natasha makes her way through the wines and spirits she is amazed at how many different types wines and spirits there are available. She is often spoilt for choice and is typically drawn simply by the colour of the price label. Red and Yellow labels are the most eye catching suggesting a real bargain. Often though she is paying what seems like a discount price, but is actually a higher price than this product has been for sale for before.
Not long to go now as Natasha makes her way through the frozen foods and on to the household cleaning products. All of the time she is getting obvious cues as to how much she is spending. Her trolley is now overflowing and she’s having to be careful about balancing things on the top. No amount of careful trolley packing can prevent the inevitable situation where she has something so big that she has to delve around and rejig the trolley so as to not crush something.
The most pointless aspect of this whole affair though is that Natasha has to empty this trolley when she gets to the checkouts. After loading the goods on to a conveyor belt, her and Elaine, the checkout operator, will between them, scan and load the goods back in to bags or boxes. After this the process continues as Natasha will then load the bags and boxes in to a trolley, back out of the trolley and in to a car, back out of the car when she gets home and finally in to the cupboards, fridges and other homes for food, drink and non-food goods.
In total, excluding getting the goods on to a shelf, each item may have been relocated several times. In factories and manufacturing, and to some extent in many industries, this type of movement and relocation would be identified as wasteful, and a logistics process would be put in place to make the process more efficient. In the world of supermarkets this inefficiency actually contributes to the bottom line. Up-selling and cross selling in store may account of a large percentage of sales.
Yet technology can change this. What about kitchens that know what stock is in the cupboards and fridges that can start to suggest recipes based on the fridge contents? Or systems that start tracking ingredients and adding them to online shopping lists and suggesting recipes for you?
You could tell the system you want roasted chicken with lemon and thyme stuffing by Jamie Oliver and your kitchen will get to work. It will work out what you have in, how fresh it is, whether it is earmarked for something else. Anything you need will be added to your online shopping list. It will be done in seconds. The system will order your food online and your food will be delivered in time from efficient warehouses via highly energy efficient logistics.
If you really wanted to visit the store you could sync your list with the trolley and it would guide you around the store to each item you need without delay or waste, adding up the total cost as you go so it’s not an horrendous surprise when you checkout. Sadly for Natasha this is not yet a reality that supermarkets are willing to embrace. So she is astonished when her shopping clocks up at £164.12. She can’t afford to keep on like this.
Despite the high cost though she is pleasantly surprised when she gets extra store points and a voucher for money off petrol. This is handy as Natasha is planning on filling up the BMW on her way home. The 3.0 straight 6 engine is refined and fast but uses fuel, especially when booted.
Natasha is pleasantly surprised by Elaine’s excellent manner and cheerful disposition. Elaine is happy in her work, she gets to meet people and work the low number of hours she needs to remain connected to others. As she ages Elaine is enjoying the community of staff in the supermarket giants store. Most don’t talk to her and she’s excluded from many of the full time employees groups but on the whole she’s found her tribe and they make her feel welcome.
As Natasha stumbles out of the store with her fully laden trolley trying to pull to the left she then faces the reality that she still has to load and unload this shopping again.
After filling up with fuel Natasha heads home to find her husband and son, Zack, relaxing and enjoying their new TV. After unloading the shopping she sits down to relax with her family. Same time next week, she’ll start this epic journey again.
Camera : iPhone 5s
Location : Tesco, Winchester, UK