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Service gets lost in self-serve world
More retailers are turning customers into clerks, cashiers

By Stevenson Swanson
Tribune national correspondent
Published April 24, 2005

NEW YORK -- From the gas that people pump themselves to such brave new frontiers of do-it-yourself-land as the self-serve checkout kiosks at Wal-Mart and The Home Depot stores, American consumers are shouldering an ever-growing chunk of the work involved in everyday transactions.

The explosion in self-serve options is generating a backlash. Communications experts say people are more isolated than they used to be in the days of face-to-face service, and other observers question how much time people are really saving if they must constantly adjust to new machines, absorb new instructions and deal with the inevitable snags.

"We're exhausted doing all this work," said Nicols Fox, a writer at work on a book called "The Case Against Efficiency." "There's just so much that we have been asked to take over. I think we are reaching a breaking point here."

Hardly anyone disputes that the information age has brought many benefits. Many people like the convenience of zipping into a bank to get cash from an automated teller and relish the freedom of going online at 3 a.m. to order steaks from Omaha and salmon from Seattle.

In the last three decades, ATMs have grown from being novel to being commonplace, with more than 371,000 machines in use. The more recent arrivals--self-service ticketing for such things as subways, buses or movies, and do-it-yourself cash registers--racked up $128 billion in North American sales in 2003, up 80 percent from the previous year. Such transactions could reach $1.3 trillion by 2007, according to a study by IHL Consulting Group.

And the Census Bureau reports retail sales over the Internet reached $69.2 billion last year, up 23.5 percent from 2003.

"People want this," said Dennis Galletta, an information systems professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management. "I think nowadays people are less patient. People not only want this technology, they demand it."

Labor-intensive convenience

But "labor-saving" technology was supposed to liberate people from mundane tasks. Now home computers, touch screens, scanning devices and other automated equipment are turning consumers into travel agents, airline employees, box office clerks, gas station attendants, photo technicians, fast-food order takers, bank tellers, and, thanks to the proliferation of voice-mail "phone trees," telephone operators.

In the latest breakthroughs in self-service, hotel chains, including Hilton, Hyatt and Sheraton, have started introducing check-in kiosks at some of their hotels, letting travelers with reservations select or change a room, request upgrades and encode their key cards.

And McDonald's is testing a self-serve station where customers can place orders, pay, and then go to a counter to pick up their burgers and fries.

Perhaps most remarkable, the U.S. Postal Service--an institution not known as an "early adapter" of innovative technology--last year started putting self-service machines in its facilities, allowing customers to weigh envelopes or parcels, select the service they want, pay for it, and print out their postage labels.

"I think the post office is the acid test," said Alex Halavais, a communications professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "Now that that's making the move to self-serve, I think we have really reached the last bastion."

But with the explosion of self-serve options, some question what the effect has been on one of mankind's most important attributes--the ability to communicate. Cherie Kerr, a public speaking and communications consultant for ExecuProv, a Santa Ana, Calif., firm, expresses amazement at the number of people she deals with who would rather exchange e-mail than talk on the telephone.

"People are just not connecting as much as they once did, or as they should," said Kerr. "A lot of people do not want to talk to people anymore."

And many observers fear that new developments in do-it-yourself technology will exclude the elderly or the poor, especially as companies start charging customers a premium for doing business the old-fashioned way.

One Illinois example of this is the fact that higher tolls are charged to drivers who don't buy the I-PASS transponder for use on the Illinois Tollway system. The I-PASS itself eliminates contact with others, because motorists can just drive through toll stations.

Paul Croce, an American studies professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., likens the dramatic growth of the self-service economy to President Bush's concept of the "ownership society," a phrase Bush has used often in the debate over introducing private Social Security accounts. Like managing one's own retirement funds, booking airline flights can be both liberating and daunting.

"It's putting on the citizen, the non-expert, a task that is potentially complex," said Croce, a specialist in popular culture and the history of science. "That's a responsibility that can be freeing but can be a real burden for a lot of people."

In at least one instance, the answer to the growth of self-serve technology may be more technology. One of the hottest potential developments in retailing is radio-frequency identification, tiny computer chips that transmit information about the products in which they are implanted. With such a system, shoppers will even be able to dispense with the whole process of going to the cashier or scanning their purchases themselves.

Innovations on horizon

Instead, a device near the exit will record the radio signals being emitted by the merchandise, add up the bill, and charge a customer's credit card.

But for writer Fox, who also owns a bookstore in Southwest Harbor, Maine, innovation and efficiency are not automatically good things. She resists as much as she can. When a book distributor started giving smaller discounts for phone orders than for online orders, she switched distributors.

"It took me two hours to do something that used to take me 15 minutes to do," said Fox, referring to online ordering. "When I can deal with people or make it a human experience, that's going to be my choice."


Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

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