David versus Goliath Battle of the Supermarkets

By Harry Hopkins

The major supermarkets in the UK continue in their quest to introduce groundbreaking technology into their stores. Tesco (300,000+ employees) would appear to be spearheading this drive with its latest offering. It is trialling its ‘magic tills’ that enable customers to pick up their groceries, drop them in their basket and by a miraculous system of cutting-edge technology (which involves ‘shelf weight’ and the use of sensors and cameras dotted around the store), the contents of the basket are ‘seen’ and recorded. Customers then proceed to the tills, where they are presented with their list of purchases which they can check and pay for. No staff are involved.

It would appear however that after just a few days one particular ‘trial’ was not going down well.

Elsewhere, among the supermarket big players (Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Waitrose and M&S) whilst the technology may not be as advanced, they are also proceeding to get rid of the human element in their stores as quickly as possible. People 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 skeleton staff? The trend to turn supermarket shopping into an automated, dehumanised, soulless experience is seen as progress.

That’s it then. It’s a done deal. This is the future of how we will be buying our groceries soon enough. Or is it?

The ‘David’ in this narrative is called Booths. It is a Preston-based chain of quality supermarkets that was founded in 1847 and remains a private limited company. It has branches across the North of England, 28 outlets in all, 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 of automated tills and minimum staffed stores. Managing director Nigel Murray has been interviewed on TV and in the mainstream press.

Booths decision to go completely with staffed tills has even been reported in the United States. Big supermarket chains in America (Walmart, Costco, Wegmans to name but three) have been questioning their policies with regard to hi-tech stores.

It is very encouraging therefore to see a supermarket, albeit a small one, taking on the much bigger competition by adopting policies completely at loggerheads to them.

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

Paul was a charming man and was only too happy to talk after I explained the reasons for my visit. The store was busy, with around six tills staffed and a good buzz around the place. I fired many questions at him and listened intently to his answers. 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 were 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 was low and loyalty high. Shoplifting, although it did exist, was low probably due to the numbers of staff present. The plastic till shields erected during covid were being taken down. Unlike the big players, who are driving towards cashless payment, cash is accepted at every till.

Paul has had many compliments and words of encouragement from customers of other supermarkets who were totally fed up with being treated like automatons. It was expressed many times to him that it was great to have an interface with staff and other customers; this was particularly in evidence amongst older people, many of whom see their shopping as a social outing. Booths was seen as a company where you could make a long-term career secure in the knowledge that they valued their employees. Their commitment to local suppliers of high repute supplying only the best foods and ingredients was paramount and this encouraged good business relationships. The enthusiasm exhibited by Paul was evident in both his manner and attitudes.

I left Booths in high spirits and it was satisfying to see that the policies of the big supermarkets are being challenged head on. The reports from the USA that the march to fully de-humanised shopping is being questioned is also encouraging. This stirs in me a positive feeling that more and more people are recognising that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’. I’m also reminded and indeed cheered by the fact that David was a puny individual compared to Goliath and we all know how that turned out.

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