Logical Conclusions

On the news is the story of the new self-checkout lanes at the supermarket.

This is another of those examples of self-service that is supposed to make consumers’ lives more convenient. Instead of waiting in line for a checker, you just step up to the scanner and sell yourself some groceries. Scan ’em all in, then bag ’em, then scan your own credit card, then carry your stuff out to the car.

In this way you can complete the entire shopping trip without ever receiving even the smallest amount of service from another human being.

Stories like this bring to mind those quaint old days when you would pull into the gas station, and someone had popped your hood (from the outside–wide open to the public the engine was in those days) and was checking your oil before you could lean out the window and say, “Fill her up.” Then, after making sure your entire car was ready to go, they would bring you the little plastic tray, with your credit card standing at attention in its little slot, so you could conveniently sign the slip and hand it back.

Or the clothing store, where instead of wandering aimlessly amid oceans of hangers, you merely strolled in and affected an air of impatience, whereupon a well-dressed man with a tape measure hanging around his neck would approach and ask how he could help you.

“How may I help you?” That’s what he would say.

And at the hardware store, where the rule now is that no employee may be over age 16 or possess any knowledge of hardware, the old guy who worked there–who had always worked there–actually knew what a ball-peen hammer was. He even knew what “ball-peen” meant. And he was surly, not distracted. There’s a difference.

They had hat stores back then. Stores that actually sold nothing but women’s hats. It was called “the Milliner.” Women had half the day to sit in the Milliner trying on hats. Even men wore hats. Not caps, hats.

Remember milk men? They brought fresh milk right to your door.

I’ve been told–I have no way of independently verifying this–that it used to be you could call a business, and someone would actually answer the phone. Moreover, they would be anxious to assist you.

Anyway, it’s not that I’m some old-timer pining away for the good old days before plastic cars and telemarketing. I’m thinking of logical conclusions. Everything we do now, we do for ourselves. No longer is there such a thing as “customer service.” I think of all the merchant jobs that used to have respectability: grocery clerk, service station attendant, haberdasher, hardware curmudgeon. They’ve all been replaced by either a teenager  in an orange vest covered in buttons proclaiming vapid phrases or, worse, a squat,  off-white credit card reader that doesn’t even say “Have a nice day” after it takes your money.

It’s all part of the larger trend – that of the mega-store grabbing every consumer dollar and shutting down the small shops and local service providers that used to cater to us, advise us on our purchases and help us make wise choices. And as these “big block” national chain stores are top-heavy corporations with executive salaries to cover, costs must be tightly controlled. That means, among other homogenizing factors, eliminating the need for experienced, knowledgeable employees who demand a living wage.

So you can get your contact lenses at Wal-Mart now, just down the aisle from the ill-fitting clothes, the gallon jugs of milk and the ball-peen hammers.

But it’s cash and carry, and you’re on your own.

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