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Posted: December 01, 2011

Rundles wrap-up: Self-serving

Jeff Rundles


The other night I went to the supermarket for a few things, and for the umpteenth time I used the self-checkout for its speed and convenience, and for the umpteenth time there was some snag and the surly checker/attendant had to overcome it to complete my transaction.

I don't really blame the checker. After all, the object of the self-service scanner is to eliminate checker positions. Maybe that's why in Britain they have a chancellor of the exchequer.

On this side of the pond, of course, we could have that same chancellor, and perhaps one for ex-gas station attendants, ex-travel agents, ex-ticket sellers, ex-video clerks, ex-secretaries, ex-stock brokers, ex-receptionists, ex-auto workers, ex-food servers, ex-bank tellers ... well, there's a lot of exes.

I'm not necessarily knocking automation; what I object to is the elimination of service. A lot of these exes were not just replaced with robots and other high-tech machines, but in some cases by real people, fewer in number and paid far less, who have no discernible skills other than to say something like "I don't know; that's just how it works." Or doesn't work. It's not their fault, of course - and that may be the point. What they really represent is a new layer of intentional obfuscation.

We've all talked about this for years, the obvious disappearing "service" in direct proportion to the growing ubiquity of the "service economy," but perhaps there is some push-back. A study released earlier this fall pointed out that the self-checkout stalls at the supermarket are beginning to go away - Albertson's has already eliminated the stations - as consumers lose their enthusiasm for them.

The self-checkout trend peaked at 22 percent of supermarket transactions in stores with the option in 2007, and then dropped off to 16 percent in 2010, the study noted. The reasons cited were that shoppers preferred to interact with a real person, one who says "hello" and can take care of a problem like a mis-marked item. What a concept.

Funny, but as I was researching the self-service movement I came across the information that the modern grocery store itself was part of a self-service trend nearly a century ago. It seems that before 1917 shoppers would go into a store and tell the clerk what they wanted - coffee, bacon, flour, etc. - the clerk would retrieve it, bag it and ring up the transaction. The customer just hung around.

Then in 1917 a guy named Clarence Saunders got a patent from the federal government for a "self-serving store" business method, an idea where the goods were placed on shelves, and the consumer picked them out, put them in a basket and took the basket to a checkout area. Apparently, the first "self-serving store" chain was Piggly Wiggly. One wonders how many jobs were eliminated back in the day.

Truth be told, the self-service model is not going away; it's evolving. The self-checking thing at supermarkets will morph into a new machine that will scan entire grocery carts in about a second. It'll swipe your card, bag the goods if you want, and you leave the store. They'll probably hire a guy to say "hello" and "good bye" who stands by the front door - wait a minute; they already have that at Wal-Mart, coincidentally the largest grocery chain in the land.

I'm sure Disney or Honda can come up with a robotic greeter who (which?) never has a bad day, can stock shelves, cut meat, retrieve carts, mop the floors and do it all 24/7 without a lunch, cigarette break, or parent/teacher conference.

It's clear that we Americans are pretty good, and have been for a long time, at coming up with labor-saving devices and methods. What we need in the 21st century is some automation that actually requires human intervention, on a high level. In other words, we need labor-creating devices and methods. We could call the output of these things "jobs."

In our quest for quicker/faster/easier/cheaper with self-service we are busy eliminating the need for us. Is that self-serving?
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at

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Readers Respond

Great article, Jeff. One area where I see less and less service is in the medical arena...and there is exactly where it should NOT be. I wound up in the E.R. of Sky Ridge Hospital yesterday...and was horrified. Understaffed, poor medical care, and saw a doctor (for something semi-serious) less than one minute. I couldn't get information about what was going on, and it took me three hours to even get a PILLOW, and then only after calling a patient representative. I see this trend in medical care as hospitals try to simply maximize their profits (I question whether hospitals should even BE a profit center) and minimize their patient care. Some of what happened to me yesterday was, in fact, dangerous to health. This is at what is supposed to be one of Colorado's top medical facilities. I shudder to think what is happening at some of the less well-financed places. I wonder if you'd be so kind as to write a column on medical care around this same subject? By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 12 13
Jeff: Note that Whole Foods does not have the self-service checkout machines, and hires enough checkers that you seldom have to wait. (At least that's the case with Boulder's stores.) Also in Boulder, our wonderful McGuckin's hardware store has lots of employees and checkers, and no checkout machines; but our Home Depot has the machines but apparently a minuscule staff. We Boulderites can pay a little more at McGuck's and Whole Foods, and the high level of service is part of the price disparity. On the other hand, we have a Sunflower Market here with no automatic checkouts; I avoid the place because they don't have enough checkers and a long wait is common. ... My point: Um, I hope we continue to have such choices, and if we want high-quality human service, then we have to be willing to pay the extra. (Often I am, and sometimes I'm feeling cheap -- and happy enough interacting with machines.) Those continuing to work in jobs like grocery checker will find most of those positions in more pleasant work environments, like Whole Foods. By Steve Outing on 2011 12 13

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