Self-Serve Trend Leaves Consumer Doing All the Work
July 14, 2007
The other day I took my children to Home Depot. When my daughter saw the do-it-yourself check-out lines, her face lit up as if she were at DisneyLand.
Do-it-yourself checkouts, in case you haven’t visited a store lately, allow you, the shopper, to be your own cashier. They’re spreading like a virus across the consumer landscape, the latest attempt by big business to pinch pennies by foisting another chore off on customers.
I don’t mind bagging my groceries. I prefer my own cloth bags to the flimsy plastic ones dispensed by most stores. But ringing up purchases is a task I’d rather leave to a professional. Elizabeth, on the other hand, tried the do-it-yourself checkout at Home Depot on her last visit, a year ago, and she was itching to do it again. I handed her four packages of hooks and my last $15 and sent her off with her brother, her assistant. Then I took my eight-foot roll of carpet, $20 bucket of carpet glue, and Visa card to an official cashier.
We finished our transactions at approximately the same time. Elizabeth had a blast. She thinks do-it-yourself is great. I am convinced it’s a sign of the downfall of western civilization.
Go ahead. Call me a prophet of gloom and doom. But before you do, think about the services that were once considered standard, which are going or have gone the way of the dodo and the dinosaur: ATM machines and computer banking are replacing tellers. Self-serve and pay-at-the-pump are replacing pump jockeys at what were once known as service stations. Computer-generated answering machines are replacing live people on the other end of phone lines everywhere.
I didn’t always feel so threatened by the concept of do-it-yourself. When self-serve gas stations made their debut, I was as enamored with the concept as my daughter is now. But back then, there were incentives. You could save a few cents per gallon. For someone as impatient as I, there was the added allure of not having to wait for the pump jockey. And if you were feeling flush, or lazy, or in the mood to be waited upon, you could pull up to the full-service pump.
These days there is no incentive and there are almost no gas stations that employ someone to help you fill your tank. The closest that most service stations come to service is a computer readout on the pump that tells you what you already realized: the pump doesn’t work. But the computer can’t tell you that the reason it doesn’t work is that you pulled the wrong credit card out of your wallet. In the absence of an alert human, it is incumbent upon you, the addled consumer, to figure it out yourself. Speaking from experience, it’s easier to drive away with the empty light on and hope you’ll find another gas station before the car dies.
I imagine there are people who prefer dealing with computers than with living, breathing humans, but most of the time I do not fit into that category. I like people. Which is why I found it particularly irksome last year when a new teller at my bank insisted every month that I try on-line or telephone banking to pay my bills. After I stopped taking it personally (What? You don’t enjoy seeing me?), I tried to get her to understand that as a person who works alone at home all day, I look forward to visiting the bank to pay my bills because it breaks up the monotony. Also, it makes me feel as if I’m getting something for my $15 monthly bank fee. Eventually she stopped nagging me. Then she disappeared altogether. For all I know, she was replaced by a computer.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to assume that at some point down the line, all the service jobs I once took for granted are going to be replaced by computers. All I can do is hope that the trend moves so slowly that by the time the inevitable happens. I’ll be too old and incapacitated to get out of the house and see it firsthand. And also that my daughter won’t lose her enthusiasm for doing it herself, because by then I’m going to need her to do it for me, too.