Are supermarkets unwittingly sabotaging their own marketing campaigns?

by Claire Harcup on

Supermarkets’ move to self-service tills is causing a tug of war within different parts of their business – and we’re the battleground.

For the past few months, I’ve been doing something that’s out of character for me. I’ve been conducting an experiment. It involves recording how happy I feel when I leave a supermarket. To do this, I’ve been marking my mood out of 10 – with 10 meaning I’m super-chuffed with the world, and 0 meaning my anger has no bounds.  The other thing I’m making a note of is whether I paid using a self-service till or a till operated by a person.

After 46 visits, the results make for interesting reading. The average score if I paid at a till operated by a person is 6.87. The average score if I’ve paid using a self-service till is 3.68. That’s a pretty wide gap.

People like people

Of course, there’s nothing statistically significant about my experiment, but I have a feeling I’m not unusual in generally feeling happier for interacting with a person when I pay. Self-service tills tell me off for not bagging something, even though I have. They spit out my perfectly good coins, even though a neighbouring till accepts them. They make me wait for a real person to come and help out. And even though I may only have to wait for ten seconds for that person to arrive, each of those seconds seems much longer than it is. Because irritation and indignation make time expand.

As shoppers, we’ve come to expect cheap food. So it’s no wonder that supermarkets are always looking for ways to cut costs. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably need to accept that innovations like self-service tills are inevitable unless we’re prepared to pay more. But lately I’ve been wondering what effect the negative feelings self-service tills evoke in me and, anecdotally, others has on marketing campaigns. I’m going to focus on Tesco, although much of what I’m saying could easily apply to other supermarkets.

Stories vs experiences

For some time now, Tesco have been putting a lot of effort into making us feel warmer towards them. I can see why. They’ve had a tricky few years, what with that naughty horse meat malarkey, some jiggery-pokery around labelling chicken, and losing ground to their competitors.  This means they need to do something to win back our hearts. And their response is to create ‘Food Love Stories’.

Whenever I go inside a Tesco store, I’m greeted by pictures of the people in those stories. These are people who look real, not airbrushed – people who have names like Alice, Stu and Nana. There’s a deliberately homely feel to Alice, Stu and Nana. I can tell that I’m supposed to feel assured by the fact they’re the faces of Tesco’s food. And by and large, it works. I’ve definitely noticed the campaign.

All of this tells me that companies like Tesco understand the power of positive emotions when it comes to marketing. That’s why Tesco don’t talk about recipes, even though this is ultimately what they’re offering. They talk about ‘love stories’. But they and other supermarkets fail to recognise the power of negative emotions when it comes to designing their shops. The two parts of the business are effectively having a tug of war, and we’re their battleground. By the time we’ve left the shop feeling irritated after having done combat with a self-service till, all the warm feeling evoked by Alice, Stu and their like has disappeared.

Someone once said to me, ‘Do shops really want the last thing I feel about them to be negative?’ Those words come back to me every time I feel frustrated by the check-out process. I’d add to that, ‘Do they really want to undermine their own campaigns?’

There’s an unexpected item in the marketing area.


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