Good Friday, Bad OS: Store Closed, But Computer Opened Doors For Shoppers Anyway

Written by Frank Hayes
April 27th, 2011

In-store automation gives and it takes away. On April 22, automation opened the doors of the biggest supermarket in Hamilton, New Zealand, at 8 A.M. local time—even though no employees were anywhere near the store, because the store was closed for Good Friday. When customers arrived, they were able to shop and even use the self-checkout without the help of in-store staff, at least until someone tried to buy liquor. That required associate intervention; customers waited, and then the reality dawned on them.

Automation is always about cutting out human labor, but just piling it on without fully integrating it into a store’s operation is bound to generate problems—in this case, potentially huge problems. No one actually backed up a truck to haul away everything in the store. But that depended on the goodwill and honesty of customers, which is not something any chain can count on. To be fair, some customers did help themselves to this week’s shoplift special.

The problem surfaced at the Pak ‘n Save supermarket on the morning of Good Friday, a day when New Zealand law requires most retailers to be closed. That meant no employees showed up for work. But the computer system that automatically opened the store and turned on the lights wasn’t programmed to take the day off, and at 8 A.M. customers began to arrive, walked in and started shopping, according to local news reports.

Security cameras caught about two dozen customers in the aisles, apparently oblivious to the lack of store associates. And 12 of those customers successfully paid for their groceries using the store’s self-checkout system. Everything worked fine sans employees until a customer was blocked after trying to buy a bottle of liquor.

That required an associate’s OK. Shoppers dutifully waited in line for the associate to show up, until it eventually dawned on them that there were no associates in the store. At that point, some shoppers bagged their groceries and left without paying. Others headed back to add to their shopping carts.

Police showed up after a customer called in to report the situation. “She said people were coming out of the store with shopping trolleys full of stock and yet there were no people manning the checkouts and no one was even in the store,” a police sergeant told the Waikato Times newspaper. “When we arrived, there were cars leaving all over the place. There were some people in the shop at the checkouts legitimately purchasing items and others in the store. We couldn’t tell who had paid and who hadn’t, and so our first priority was to close the supermarket and contact the owners.”

(Note to retailers in Hamilton, New Zealand: Don’t hire local police for Loss Prevention. They’ve never heard of receipts.)


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