Retail ergonomics: continuing professional development

What’s new in retail ergonomics?

One of the most visible developments in retail is the growth in internet shopping. Regardless of what web browser you use, you are unlikely to avoid carefully targeted adverts popping up on screen. Retail opportunities are only a click away. There also seems to be an extraordinary number of delivery vans promising to deliver your shopping at any time cruising residential areas. There are also major businesses, from low-cost airlines to theatre-booking sites, which only exist on the internet.

I was surprised, therefore, when I checked the British Retail Consortium1 website and discovered that in 2009, internet sales accounted for only 7% of UK retail sales of more than £286bn. I was also surprised that the retail industry employed more than 2.9 million people at the end of December 2009 (approximately 11% of the total UK workforce) and that there are nearly 300,000 retail outlets.

Although retail employment is falling (by more than 145,000 in the past five years), it is still a labour-intensive industry with a risk of work-related injuries and ill health. However, the most recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics (2008-09) from its Labour Force Survey (LFS)2 found that self-reported work-related ill health in retail was significantly lower than that in all industries.

The retail sector has been hit by the recession and this has reduced reported accidents and ill health for a number of reasons, not all positive, as research by System Concepts shows.3

Nonetheless, the LFS estimated that 3.1 million working days were lost because of workplace injury and work-related ill health, a significant problem that should be addressed. And the retail sector is increasingly turning to technology as a way of reducing the workforce.

The purpose of this article is to examine some of the trends in retail ergonomics to see what the impact of the increasing introduction of technology is likely to be in terms of health and wellbeing.

Health and safety risks in retail

The two biggest areas of concern in retail involve slips and trips (the biggest single source of major injuries) and manual handling (from a variety of risks including lifting, pushing and repetitive operations).

Slips and trips are particularly common in food retail where floors are often slippery, caused by spills. It is not just the slip or trip that causes problems; where the person lands can be the difference between a minor graze and a major injury. The HSE has launched a hard-hitting campaign entitled Shattered Lives to target this major area.4

Although technology has a role to play, the problems and solutions are multifaceted, and there is no obvious technical fix. It is being introduced in manual handling in warehouse space and stores, which changes practices dramatically.

In this article, I aim to focus on the interface with the customer and how technology is being applied, which has a profound impact on staff wellbeing and health and on customer service.

Retail technology

I thought the practice of pricing goods just under whole figures arose because £4.99 seems less than £5. But I understand it was invented as an anti-pilfering technique by an American supermarket manager to ensure that staff had to open the tills to give change. By hearing the ping when the drawer opened, he was confident that the cash was not being pocketed.

Although I can think of ways that this system can be circumvented, what strikes me is the underlying assumption that you cannot trust your staff. An attitude that persists today – arguably with some justification since shrinkage runs to millions of pounds each year.

Retailers have invested heavily in technology to counter theft by staff and customers. CCTV is so refined that face-tracking software can spot shoplifters and monitor details of staff behaviour, which can be viewed from the cameras in back offices.

But it is customer service, not theft, that I wish to discuss. After talking to thousands of customers, it is clear that good customer service comes from motivated and helpful staff, not clever technology. And, increasingly, the technology that is being introduced disempowers and demotivates staff and reduces the opportunities they have to help customers.

I believe there are four approaches that retailers are taking to technology, which, although they overlap to some extent, represent different solutions, each with their own implications for staff (and customer) wellbeing.

These are:

  • Internet shopping, which is increasing rapidly

  • Squeezing more/better technology into the checkout

  • Self-service systems

  • Empowered staff systems.

Before discussing these scenarios, I will explain what an ergo-nomics (or human factors) approach to retail technology means and why I believe it adds real value to business.

An ergonomics approach to retail technology

Ergonomics (also known as human factors) is a discipline that aims to improve total system effectiveness by ensuring that the people in the system are safe, comfortable and productive. This involves applying knowledge about people and human behaviour to the design of these systems. In some cases, the issues are purely physical – can the person reach the control or fit into the space required?

In other cases, psychological issues are involved – can the person understand the information in the way it is presented and can they use it to make decisions? And in practice, many issues are a combination of such factors – for example can the person use the controls and displays to interact effectively with the entire system, including other people involved, for example in a TV control room.

There are three elements of an ergonomics approach that I believe are particularly important:

  • Focus on tasks. Ergonomists need to understand what the person is trying to do and what is important in getting it right. People sometimes talk about making things easy, but this is misleading. Brain surgery is never likely to be easy, but surgeons (and patients) benefit when the tools have been designed to match surgeons’ skills and abilities.

  • Recognise individual differences between people. As we all differ, good ergonomics design takes account of this – not by designing for average but to accommodate the range. So when we are interested in reach issues, we use data from the smallest people, whereas when we design for access, we use data for the largest people

  • Adopt a systems approach. It is the interaction between all aspects of the system, including hardware, software and people, that matters. Apple’s iPod is a great example of where the hardware is well designed, the software is fun to use, and integration with iTunes makes a great user experience.

In retail tasks, typical issues include:

  • Visual tasks, where staff or customers have to be able to read displays (typically electronic). Consider such issues as image size, distance, contrast, which can also be influenced by the lighting design, and proximity to windows and daylight

  • Delicate tasks, where fine control is required, for example operating a keyboard. As an approximate rule of thumb, such tasks should involve being able to have upper arms hanging straight down close to the body and the keyboard close to elbow height (or maybe slightly above)

  • Manipulative tasks, where objects need to be handled, for example turning objects so that barcodes can be read by a scanner. Ideally, such objects should be close to the body and approximately at elbow height

  • Heavy tasks, where merchandise has to be lifted on to belts or packing surfaces. Ideally, heavy items should be kept close to the body and slightly below elbow height.

Internet shopping

One of the attractions of internet shopping for retailers is that their checkout can be available 24/7 without staff complaining; Christmas Day is a big day for internet shopping. However, if we consider the ergonomics and wellbeing risks associated with such shopping, then a slightly different picture emerges.

So-called bricks-and-mortar retailers have two options when it comes to fulfilling internet orders: copy the new internet retailers and deliver to customers from warehouses and distribution centres; or deliver from their stores.

Both of these options involve staff in significant lifting and hand-ling, and although individual loads may not be heavy, the task is likely to be more frequent than is usually undertaken by back-room staff. Also, when it comes to delivering to individual addresses, drivers may have to negotiate more complex terrains than typical bulk delivery tasks.

It is unclear how much this increased manual handling will lead to musculoskeletal problems for staff.

For customers, there is another ergonomics issue – increased use of display screen equipment (DSE). Not only are home users less likely to have conducted DSE risk assessments of their home workstations, they are also probably adding this DSE work to their paid DSE work. Our bodies make little distinction between the physical load imposed by sweating over a spreadsheet at work and struggling over which vegetables to order.

Excessive DSE use may lead to musculoskeletal problems and becoming addicted to internet shopping might be the last straw for tired bodies.

Squeezing more/better technology into the checkout

Checkouts are already cramped – the space they occupy is seen as wasted as it does not contain merchandise. So squeezing more or better technology in can make the musculoskeletal and other demands greater.

For customers, this is not a huge issue. They typically spend only a few minutes at the checkout and the only technology they are likely to use is the chip and pin reader. However, when this was introduced a few years ago, it was obvious that disabled customers, particularly those using wheelchairs, would need to be considered. So apart from making retailers ensure that the chip and pin handsets could be passed to a wheelchair-bound customer, concern about the Disability Discrimination Act led some retailers to reconsider the needs of disabled customers at checkouts.

But however well a checkout is designed, it is difficult to see how checkout operation can be a fun job. It inevitably involves moving merchandise over or past a scanner, usually with one hand and manip-ulating goods from bags of potatoes to pots of yoghurt for the duration of the shift. There is usually a significant degree of repetition (depending on how much customers spend) and little opportunity to rest. Assessing repetitive motion in such workplaces has been helped by a new Health and Safety Executive Tool – ART Assessment of Repetitive Tasks.5

Improved computer systems, often with colour LCD displays, can help, but add to the visual demands on operators, and poor postures can be exacerbated by stooping or twisting to avoid reflections or use poorly located touch screens.

One of the biggest risk factors in checkout work concerns shift patterns and work rate. Many staff work solidly for four hours without a break, something I find difficult to believe does not lead to discomfort (at least). Sensible managers rotate staff, but it is becoming difficult to justify manning levels or the variety of different tasks that makes this possible.

Self-service systems

Retailers – from banks to supermarkets – are introducing technology that encourages customers to do it themselves. Increasingly, supermarkets and banks are installing self-service tills and banking machines to offer customers choice. Customers seem to like the feeling of control and I have observed shoppers who are convinced the self-service till was quicker (even though the queue at the regular till was faster).

Customers using the scanners and devices infrequently often get into difficulties, so there needs to be a member of staff (typically one per four tills). This person is necessary but I cannot believe it is a satisfying job. It must be difficult to remain motivated and helpful (which is the foundation of customer service), when faced with irritated self-servers who encounter problems.

I expect that the ergonomics risks for customers to be low, given that the frequency and duration of operation are also likely to be low. However, for staff, I can see psychosocial issues resulting from dealing with disgruntled customers and experiencing unreliable, or perceived to be unreliable, technology.

Empowered staff systems

The final category is one that, superficially, is similar to self service, but is fundamentally different in terms of customer service. The concept is that technology is used to enable motivated and helpful staff to provide excellent customer service – either helping customers to do it themselves or by bringing a range of services to the customer. A number of banks are heading in this direction with staff greeting customers at the door, using technology to direct them to more specialised services or helping them to access the right self-service facilities.

If it works well, the staff will be motivated and happy to provide excellent customer service using effective technology. If it works badly, demotivated staff will become little more than machine minders using unreliable technology in inappropriate working environments. They will also need to get used to being the focus of all customer comments and complaints about their employer.


Although I am unsure where technology use is heading, I think it is an exciting time for retail technology and look forward to some major developments in the next few years. However, it is worth reminding retailers that:

  • Customers barely notice the technology

  • Great service comes from friendly, helpful and efficient staff

  • Good design empowers staff and enhances their wellbeing

  • Bad design/technology reduces staff wellbeing and destroys customer service.

Test yourself on this article with this month’s quiz.

Tom Stewart is executive chairman of System Concepts (an ergonomics and health and safety consultancy) and past president of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (previously the Ergonomics Society).


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