How to deter your customers

Fifty years ago, I started my first full-time job, albeit a seasonal one during my summer holidays. Those were the days when Britain still used Pounds, Shillings and Pence, when we had a complex system of purchase taxes rather than VAT, and long before we joined the European Union.

Far from being the ‘good old days’, times were hard. To get to work, I had to cycle a round trip of about fifteen miles each day. I couldn’t afford to do the journey by bus, as that would have left me little from my wages. At work, I wandered the Central Beach next to the pier at Clacton-on-Sea – one of the busiest beaches in the country during the summer – selling crisps, peanuts, and soft drinks from a wooden tray slung over my shoulders.

I was paid purely on commission. There was no minimum wage in those days, so if I sold nothing, I was paid nothing. It was an unfortunate choice of job that particular year, as that summer on the Essex coast was a wash-out. Some days it wasn’t even worth cycling to work, and others my effort was completely wasted.

My best days were when I could substitute for one of the ice-cream sellers, as they were paid a retainer and commission. If it was hot and sunny I could make as much in one day selling ice-creams as I did in several busy days in my own job. But there weren’t many occasions when I was able to sell ice-creams, and few of them were hot or sunny.

Last week, our trip to the local town to accomplish our weekly shopping was a marked contrast. Having survived the supermarket session, we went to buy magazines for our grandchildren in the national chain of newsagents, WH Smith. Fifty years ago I was also working a paper round, for a local newsagent which had originally been part of WH Smith’s then huge network of shops around the UK. Someone at Smith’s then had the bright idea of selling off most of its smaller shops, and concentrating on the bigger stores.

Today, although that store has a similar number of staff as it did in the past, they seldom deal with customers, leaving that to a self-service point. Although I have used it several times, its human interface is designed to make it as difficult as possible to complete your purchase. Binary decisions are cunningly turned into impossipuzzles: for example, its opening gambit is to offer you a choice between Start and I have brought my own bag. Invariably, I have my own bag but also want to start, so could equally tap on either option. It only gets worse from there.

Last week we also had the task, perhaps labour would be a more appropriate word, of paying four cheques into the bank. I try to avoid doing this for as long as possible, because our bank has been transformed into an unamusement arcade of automated service points, and its humans hidden away in secret recesses.

Once again, I had to negotiate a human interface which was optimised for those from a different planet and system of logic. I passed through the sequence of screens several times before finally working out what it really wanted me to tap. At one stage, having already selected the bank account into which I wanted to pay the cheques, it offered me two alternative accounts (one of which I had not chosen), but secretly wanted me to ignore that choice altogether and tap on the Next button, which was tucked away in a corner of the touchscreen.

When I finally got to the point where it asked me to insert the cheques, it made encouraging noises and thought about them a great deal before informing me that it could not complete the transaction. It did not explain why, so I negotiated the whole sequence again, with even greater failure: it had suddenly become incapable of recognising one of the four cheques, so once again did not complete, giving me no reason.

It was at that point that a human emerged, and, abandoning the large system which customers have to deal with, went through a similarly troubled sequence of actions on a special staff computer system. Eventually, more than ten minutes after I had entered the bank, I left, my account £44 better off for my perseverance.

I don’t want to return to ‘the good old days’ which weren’t. But simple tasks like buying magazines and paying cheques into your bank account were incredibly quick then. And we could chat with the friends who served us. The machines that have supplanted them are unusable, and deter customers. Is that really what our retail businesses want?