Self-Served: The Threat to Brands from Customer Self Service

xraydelta has previously used the story of how a visit in the 1950s to the U.S. supermarket chain, Piggly Wiggly, by some senior Toyota executives who, the story goes, originally came to tour the Ford plant in Detroit but ended up more inspired by what they saw at Piggly Wiggly (see Piggly Wiggly: An Inspiration for the Toyota Way). Specifically, Toyota was inspired by the idea of the two-sided refrigerators that stocked  items like milk in slanted trays; when a customer pulled an item the row of milk cartons would index down and signal the stockroom to add a carton to that row.

Although the chain is much smaller these days (about 600 stores), back in the 1930s and 40s it had over 2,600 stores and was a major innovator in how people shop. For example, they were one of the first stores to have shoppers select groceries from the shelves themselves; in the past, customers would approach a store counter to tell a clerk what they wanted and had the items pulled off the shelves and then bagged and boxed for them. It was an important retail process innovation.

shadow work

Craig Lambert, in a new book, Shadow Work, presents the downside of the self-serve approach. In his article for the New York Times, Lambert wrote:

The other night at the supermarket I saw a partner at a downtown law firm working as a grocery checker, scanning bar codes. I’m sure she earns at least $300,000 per year. Even so, she was scanning and bagging her purchases in the self-service checkout line. For those with small orders, this might save time spent waiting in slower lines. Nonetheless, she was performing the unskilled, entry-level jobs of supermarket checker and bagger free of charge.

This is “shadow work,” a term coined 30 years ago by the Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, in his 1981 book of that title. For Dr. Illich, shadow work was all the unpaid labor — including, for example, housework — done in a wage-based economy.

Science fiction novels of a half-century ago dramatized conflicts between humans and robots, asking if people were controlling their technologies, or if the machines were actually in charge. A few decades later, with the digital revolution in juggernaut mode, the verdict is in. The robots have won. Although the automatons were supposedly going to free people by taking on life’s menial, repetitive tasks, frequently, technological innovation actually offloads such jobs onto human beings.

The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay. Examples abound, helping drive unemployment rates.

To be sure, there are many customers who prefer self-service. Your correspondent finds online booking of things like hotels and flights very convenient and is indicative of a segment of consumers that would rather deal with software, provided, of course, that it works.

Writes Lambert:

Shadow work isn’t always unpaid; sometimes it shows up at one’s salaried job in the form of new tasks covertly added to one’s responsibilities. Not long ago, human resources departments kept track of employees’ vacation, personal and sick days. In many organizations, employees now enter their own data into absence management software.

…doctors routinely observe that one of the most common complaints today is fatigue; a 2007 study pegged its prevalence in the American work force at 38 percent. This should not be surprising. Much of this fatigue may result from the steady, surreptitious accumulation of shadow work in modern life. People are simply doing a huge number of tasks that were once done for them by others.

Doing things for one another is, in fact, an essential characteristic of a human community.

In addition to the potential for increased fatigue and fragmentation, lies the distinct threat, to the company, that even as they cleverly outsource work to their own customers, that they undermine the very relationship they seek to establish and strengthen with their customers. The Economist, in its examination of the phenomena wrote:

Even as they eliminate the personal touch from their mass-market offerings, service industries keep chasing the well-heeled with extravagant, premium-priced offerings. Consumers are being ever more clearly divided into a “cattle class”, herded into the back of the cabin and offered precious little service, and a pampered “business class”, for whom no amount of fawning is too much. (Fly Virgin Atlantic in its ironically titled Upper Class and you get a private car to take you to and from the airports, and flunkeys waiting in the lounge to polish your shoes and cut your hair.) Not only might this intensify resentment of the haves by the have-nots; it also robs the have-nots of entry-level jobs.

The second worry is for businesses themselves. If they never meet their customers, they will lose touch with them. And although self-service is great for saving costs, its effect over time is to train customers to shop on price, and thus to switch as soon as a slightly cheaper rival comes along.