Tuesday, September 22, 2009


The Queen and I did a little shopping yesterday and it seems that a new, and not very hopeful, sign of the times hit us in the face. Well, really it hit us in the patience meter.

At stops at both Home Depot and WalMart (the single largest private employer in the country) we were faced with the prospect of SELF CHECKOUT!

There were no regular, staffed lanes open at Home Depot. Just one poor soul overseeing a group of self service checkout stands. OK, we said, we can play this game. The Curmudgeon has been what we call computer literate since the early 70s so how hard could it be? Well, pretty hard actually. The combination of a poorly laid out display and the total absence of printed instructions coupled with the requirement (never clearly expressed) that items MUST be placed on the bagging area (to be weighed it turns out) led to mild frustration. The fact that the damn scanner required four or more passes and then the help of the attendant led to verbal outbursts. This is no way to run a railroad (or retail store).

WalMart was no better. The only live cashiers were at the 10 items or less lane and the cigarette lane. Huge lines, so we tried self service again. Same result. Now this is clearly a small thing which on this day caused us a bit of frustration, but it's not hard to see a bigger problem in the making.

How many cashiers were not working and earning a living while we, the customers, did their work, I wondered. And then the full implication hit me. This is just the latest examples of a trend. First gas stations, after doing away with their service bays in favor of convenience store selves, did away with attendants altogether. Or maybe it was the other way around. Regardless, we, the customers, now pumped our own gas, cleaned our own windows and if we wanted to check the tires we could find a pump at the end of the lot that took a quarter to provide compressed air. The work of six or seven skilled (mechanics) and unskilled workers was now being done by one paid employee and the customers who are paying the freight.

Then those customer service giants the airlines figured that they could use the Internet and kiosks to sell tickets and provide boarding passes. More jobs lost. And now general retail has joined the club.

Sure, this is a way to keep prices low, but isn't it also, in the long run, counter productive? Fewer and fewer paid employees means fewer and fewer people able to buy what those fewer employees are selling. What we are seeing is both the end promise of the industrial revolution and the reversal of Henry Ford's response to that revolution. Ford saw that while he could build more of the new finagled horseless carriages with fewer employees by using the tools of industry, he also saw that he needed to pay higher wages to those employees so that they could afford to buy the cars.

Today we see that companies are trying to sell more products to an ever diminishing pool of buyers. Jobs are outsourced to other countries or eliminated all together (no cashiers). Now I'm not in favor of silly work rules that create jobs just to create jobs (see GM) but, since 70% of our economy, before this recession, was driven by consumer spending, shouldn't we maybe think about were those consumers are going to work?

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