Shoppers Drug Mart giving self-checkouts a new voice

Retail pharmacy chain is switching from an American to a Canadian voice at its kiosks

Just a few months after starting the roll out of self-service checkouts across Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart is making an update to its kiosks that should improve the experience for some customers with a keen ear.

Plans are in the works to replace the voice prompts with a new Canadian voice to talk users through the checkout experience. Shoppers confirmed the change to Canadian Grocer but said the update was in the works long before a published story about people irritated by the original audio guide.

Customer service scores are up in the stores where the self-service checkouts are installed, people are asking for them in the stores where they aren’t, and Shoppers has received “many positive comments” about the checkouts, said Tammy Smitham, a spokesperson for the Loblaw-owned retail pharmacy chain. The checkouts are in 112 stores now and slated to be in 190 by year-end.

Late last week, a popular Toronto news blog posted a story with the headline: "Toronto doesn’t like the new Shoppers Drug Mart automated checkouts."

The article claimed the company was changing the voice of the kiosks because so many customers complained about it sounding like a bored teen.

The catalyst for the article appears to be a tweet by a Toronto social media expert who has 10,500 followers on Twitter. “Shoppers Drug Mart needs a better voice performer. This one sounds like she’s rolling her eyes and filing her nails,” tweeted Tod Maffin, along with a six-second video clip.

That original tweet was posted July 1 but seemed to go “a bit viral,” as Maffin put it, in early September. It has been liked more than 2,300 times and retweeted 520 times, and several responses to it on Twitter were cited in the BlogTO piece. On Sept. 7, Shoppers tweeted out that it was “working on new self-checkout prompts using Canadian talent.”

The self-checkouts were provided by an American vendor, explained Smitham. “We wanted to put them into market to test them so we went with the provided voice on the machine,” she said. “Given the positive feedback and results we received we decided to roll out the self-checkouts with a Canadian voice. This was our plan from the outset.” Smitham said in customer service surveys, just five people complained about the voice.

Self-checkouts, while certainly not new, remain a hot button topic for both consumers and retailers. With many shoppers still uncomfortable with the process, opposed to the perceived reduction in human-based customer service or unhappy with the performance of the technology itself, something as innocuous as the voice prompts could have a meaningful impact on the experience for some customers.

In 2015, British grocery chain Tesco felt compelled to change the voice of the “assistant” that guided customers through the self-checkout process, because customers found it “shouty” and “irritating.”

"Customers really like the convenience of our self-service checkouts, especially when they’re just popping into store to pick up lunch or a few items after work. But for some, the voice leaves them a bit frustrated,” Tesco’s self-service checkout manager Jame Dewen told Wired at the time.

Later that year, another British grocery chain Morrisons changed the voice at its kiosks during the hectic holiday shopping period believing a more cheery voice could make the self-checkout experience a better one. Morrisons used actor Ben Whitehead and called the voice Festive Fred but, according to the BBC, with 67% of customer still feeling anxious about using the machines, Morrisons hired an extra 1,000 staff anyway.


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