Sunday, February 22, 2009

Business To Customers: “You Work For Us Now.”


You bought it. Now scan it, bag it and get out of here… 

By Gene Sculatti

Oops... wrong demo

If you’ve been to the supermarket lately, you’ve probably seen-- and maybe used-- the self-serve check-out counters that have sprouted, conveniently, right next to the express lanes. Here helpful clerks give shoppers tutorials on how to place their purchases on the counter, scan them, pay for them, get change and their receipt back, then pack what they’ve bought into paper or plastic.
This do-it-yourself transaction is presented, as they all usually are, as a customer-friendly option, an innovation that the management of Megalomart came up with to save you time. But, of course, it’s a corporation-friendly gambit devised to save the chain labor costs. That helpful clerk giving instructions is helping management eliminate her job. (In California, where I live, the installation of a limited number of self-serve check-outs in various stores was part of the last union-supermarket contract agreement.) 

It wasn’t until recently, though, while listening to an almost 50-year-old radio aircheck, that I got some sense of how long this trend has been going on. In a 1961 newscast, sandwiched between Top-40 hits by Ray Charles and the Shirelles, the announcer read an item about President Kennedy planning a special commission to look into the effects of automation on the American worker. Back then the fear wasn’t that jobs from foundry-worker to art director to telephone operator would be carted off to Mexico or India, but that robotic arms and fingers would displace blue-collar cats just starting to make their way into the American Dream. (Catch them welding and bolting away in that clip of Martha & the Vandellas singing “Nowhere to Run” on the line at Ford’s Rouge plant.)

But that’s exactly it. As my friend, writer Jim Trombetta, put it, “The customer has become the robot.” Over the years, we’ve been conned into not just paying for our goods and services, but increasingly performing the work that the maker or seller of the goods formerly took on. Maybe in a year or so, we can be lured into unloading the trucks at the supermarket (after fully signing away our rights to sue if we get hernias) for a significant reduction in our grocery tabs.
This is the way, in the late ’60s, that self-serve gas was introduced: Forego full-serve, pump your own and you’ll pay less. Granted, as customers, we all naturally respond to the price reduction and/or time-saving of ATM’s, no-host airport check-ins, automated parking lots and customer-service hot-lines (don’t get me started), but in time all the benefits of doing it yourself have a way of mysteriously evaporating. There are no more full-serve gas pumps, the cost has continued to climb, and just how many extra milliseconds do you get from not forking over cash to the underpaid parking attendant?  

Not surprisingly, it seems, younger customers are the most willing participants in the self-serve check-out scam. Clearly, they’re already more comfortable with fully or partially computerized transactions than older folks are. They may also be more gullible, comprising the target audience, and presumably the most responsive cohort, of business’ latest off-loading of labor: corporations’ online invites for customers to “write your own ad.” Here the copywriter, like the supermarket clerk, gets his or her hours pruned back, this time by an American Idol style come-on that promises not price breaks or convenience but cash and (maybe even the more powerful draw) celebrity. It’s still You, Robot. 

The late great monologist Lord Buckley nailed it, back in the early ’50s, in a bit titled “The Supermarket.” That particular American intuition was a fairly fresh notion then, and with characteristic wit Buckley contrasted the bold new world of Safeway with what it had replaced: the corner grocer, who took the shopping list you handed him, then fetched the cans and packs and boxes from his walls, rang them up and bagged them for you. 

Now, says Buckley, 

You grab the cart and you go strolling up and down the aisles 
and you load up all your jazz 
and you're working for them, see?

But it's alright, because you're getting - 
this is the beginning and you’re happy with the 
very, very, low, low, low, low prices. 
Saving, you see. So you don't mind, you know, pushing a little bit.

And then a few years swing by and there you are:
Same supermarket, same cart, but the prices - Whoaa!
And you’re still pushin’ the mother [fucking] cart…

Keep on pushin.’

Gene Sculatti hosts Atomic Cocktail, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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At 7:59 AM, Blogger Doc said...

Kinda echoes what I said recently right here...

But expresses it oh so much better than I did.


At 8:20 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

It's terrific to see a real Mustang on the line, not to mention M and the V's. During the ensuing years we've certainly been robotized in any number of ways, including those you describe.

I also recall another concept from the 50s-60s, wherein the machines would be doing so much of the work that we'd be living lives of leisure, working only a few days a week, etc. Unfortunately, that only occurred in the "investor" class, while the rest of us worked more than ever.

I wonder what will happen when the massive and aging boomer generation becomes increasingly unable to easily handle the size of the big box stores and all the tasks required to operate in this service vacuum. I'm one of them and I already have mobility and health problems that make it difficult to deal with things out there in walk a mile to get a loaf of bread land.

I often think fondly of department store employees who'd help pick and bring clothes to the changing rooms, grocery store kids who'd bring your order home via bicycle and pharmacists at the corner drugstores who'd mix your medicine themselves and have someone bring it to your door along with sage advice.

It's so impersonal and cold now in so many ways. I can't imagine what will happen as our economic platform is eaten out like the rust belt.

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I beg to differ with you in regards to the self check stations in grocery stores. As I have observed, most people are really pretty helpless when using them and if they are stymied once or twice, they go back to the cashier lines. Most of the self check machines are hyper sensitive to prevent theft and blare at you to wait for the cashier who is helping folks with the self check stations if the tiniest of things is wrong.
This does not save anyone much money or time. I use them because I want to bag my groceries the way I unload them at home, got sick of frozen foods put next to fresh lettuce and finger squashed bread loaves.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Charles D said...

The corporations have indeed used bait and switch techniques to offload the work of their employees (and thus their jobs) in favor of their customers.

We were promised discounts on gas if we pumped our own. Where did those discounts go? We also used to have service stations at which one could actually get one's car serviced. That phenomenon has all but disappeared.

When ATM's came out, there was no fee for transactions at the machine. Once we were lured into reliance on these quick cash terminals, there was suddenly a fee, and now an even larger fee. I have seen ATMs with fees as high as $4.00, not counting what your own bank will charge you. All those fees would pay for lots of teller jobs, but those jobs are gone now so the money goes right into the bank's profit margin.

We have become customers of our government as well. Most Americans don't even show up for the bi-annual voting ritual where we are permitted to choose between two products either of which is guaranteed not to threaten corporate power. We are told that competition between greedy corporations is so much more efficient than government, as though our political system and our public commons were so much bath soap.

We work for them now.

At 11:22 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

They are all funny. Work with them. Cut my own head is better then work with them. All foreign currency rates are up and they think that they will survive in these crisis atmosphere.


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