The Supportive

Museum of Customer Support: The First Shopping Cart

What can the first shopping cart teach us about implementing online self-service options today?

Hosted by:
Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

Customer Service Educator

Museum of Customer Support: The First Shopping Cart
Hosted by:
Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

Customer Service Educator

This post is part of The Supportive, Mathew Patterson’s column for customer service professionals. Learn what The Supportive is, or browse through all of the posts from this series.

When you’ve hit a problem using a website, waiting an unknowable amount of time for an answer from the customer service team can be frustrating. Being able to find your own answer and get back to your work quickly is a far better experience.

Of course, self-service options aren’t always that helpful. On the customer side, they can be hard to find, difficult to navigate, out of date, or just plain wrong. On the business’ side, delivering consistently high-quality self-service is not always the cheap and easy option that it might first appear.

In the world of grocery stores, there has been a century-long shift from the original “clerk standing behind the counter” model to the enormous self-service supermarkets of today. We can learn from that long history to improve our online self-service implementations today.

A brief history of self-service supermarkets

  • 1893 — John Krugers opens the first self-service cafeteria in the U.S.

  • 1912 — Lutey’s Marketeria is the first self-service grocery store (paired with a traditional grocery store next door).

  • 1915 — Alpha Beta opens a self-service grocery store in Pomona, California, filled with goods organized alphabetically.

  • 1916 — The first Piggly Wiggly opens, based on Clarence Saunders’ patented self-serve store concept.

  • 1930 — King Kullen becomes the first true supermarket, meeting the following five criteria: “separate departments; self-service; discount pricing; chain marketing; and volume dealing.”

  • 1937 — Clarence Saunders opens Keedoozle, a “fully automated” vending machine-style store.

  • 1937 — Sylvan Goldman patents the first shopping cart for his Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain.

  • 1992 — Price Chopper introduces the first self-checkout, which does not work well.

  • 2014 — ShelfX trials the first fully unstaffed store.

  • 2016 — Amazon Go trials a high-tech unstaffed store concept.

At every stage, new self-service methods have been met with resistance from customers who prefer the existing methods or who don’t understand the new tools.

At the outset, some men viewed shopping carts as “too feminine,” while many of the grocery-related complaints were more valid, of course. For some people, navigating a large store and identifying the right items is challenging, both physically and in other ways.

At the center of the resistance we sometimes feel to self-service, both in the physical world and online, is the suspicion that it’s really all for the benefit of the business and not the customer. By shifting some of the work from their paid staff onto us, they can reduce costs and expand their business at the same time.

So when we online companies talk about self-service, our customers can be excused for being a little cynical about our motivations. Self-service supermarkets caught on partly because they enabled genuinely better customer experiences. They offered a wider range of choices, lower prices, and the ability to select our own punnet of berries and avoid getting the past-their-prime ones snuck into the bag.

Self-checkouts, on the other hand, have taken a long time and many iterations to roll out. That may reflect an imbalance in the benefits between seller and customer. Not paying for checkout staff is theoretically a big win for the store (though the research suggests it has not worked out that way), but the experience of attempting to check out your own goods and failing to win an argument against a stubborn and very stupid scale is no great gain for customers.

Self-checkout usage patterns are changing. For a younger demographic and at times and in places with smaller, more frequent shopping patterns, self-checkout is popular. Over time and with technological improvements, the balance of benefits may shift back to level. The same balancing act applies to online service, too.

What supermarkets can teach us about effective online self-service

Online businesses can support vastly more customers per staff member than a supermarket can, which means the impact of quality self-service is amplified. Even though the technology is different, there are lessons we can draw from the supermarkets.

1. Understand your customer experience

Sylvan Goldman watched his customers shop and realized they would buy more if they were not struggling to carry items in a basket. The best self-service comes from identifying those rough edges, the places where your customers are being delayed or inconvenienced and would be willing to help themselves.

Review your logging and consider running some user testing sessions to understand how your customers think and behave when they run into problems, and then shape your self-service to fit those behaviors.

2. Use good signage and education

Perhaps employing attractive models to demonstrate your knowledge base would be going too far, but helping people understand how self-service works and where to get it is vital to increasing uptake. Make your self-service more visible and accessible by positioning it where it is most likely to be needed.

3. Reinforce self-service usage

Piggly Wiggly employed staff to encourage shoppers to browse and select their own items. Have your customer service team point people to self-service options whenever practical (after answering their immediate question) to increase self-service over time.

4. Continually improve self-service offerings

We’ve had self-checkouts for almost 30 years, but the designs keep being refined and the experiences improved to better suit customer needs and reduce operating needs and costs.

Your own self-service options might not be comprehensive at first, or they may be difficult to browse and use, but don’t let them stagnate. Look for opportunities to expand, update, and improve the content, and continue to make them ever more accessible and enjoyable to use.

Further reading for online self-service

We’ve got a ton of inspiration and practical assistance to help you craft a self-service customer experience that creates genuine value for your customers, as well as for your business:

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