December 14, 2010

In 1917, the United States Patent Office awarded Clarence Saunders a patent for a "self-serving store". Customers enjoyed the new freedom to be able to choose their products directly.

The original Piggly-WigglyAgainst that newfound freedom and the promise of lowered prices, what was a little lost customer interaction as quota'ed checkout stands, turnstiles, and fences replaced the local grocer? Few noticed or cared that customers had been converted into part of the store's service assembly line and were now doing many of the jobs that paid staff used to do. The store manager was in charge of the buying, as always. The only paid jobs that were left were stocking, cleaning, and cashing out: and those at a sharply reduced staff-customer ratio.

Not surprisingly, Piggly-Wiggly and its competitor Alpha Beta were happy with the enhanced profit line. Other stores noticed, and were quick to follow suit.

Neither the personal touch nor the lost jobs were missed, not with a war looming on the horizon. As the traditional role of women abruptly shifted to fill the employment vacuum, the jobs lost to volunteering customers would not become noticeable until the men returned from war: at which point the self serve store had become so much a part of the landscape that its role was never questioned.

Nor did the promise of lowered prices ever pan out. Since education in identifying product value had not parallelled increased customer choice, shelf appeal quickly became the dominant basis for product selection. To best leverage the new basis for choice, an entire industry grew up around packaging and brand recognition: an industry which quietly raised the wholesale cost of the most popular products and edged others out.

The introduction of self-bagging at discount grocery stores went almost completely unnoticed. Now self-bagging in all levels of grocery stores is the norm, although it is often concealed under the environmental guise of reducing plastic bags (but you can always buy one if you want, which sometimes also pays for your bagger's services and sometimes not).

When self-checkouts were introduced in Clifton Park in 1992, customers scarcely blinked. A single cashier could now supervise four or more self-serve lines: which were even more efficient than cashier lines would have been since the customers who chose that option were clearly motivated by getting out of the store as quickly as possible. A few objected that self-checkouts used customer unpaid labour to further trim store costs and increase profit margins: but enough people saw only a shorter, faster checkout line that the objectors were little more than a speed bump.

Forty years ago, full service filling stations (gas stations) were the norm. Not only would the attendants fill the tank, they would also clean the windows, check and adjust the tire pressure, and top off the oil, tires, antifreeze, and a myriad of other engine fluids essential to the smooth operation of a vehicle. This model had not essentially changed since the first purpose-built gas station in the world came into being in St. Louis (United States) in 1905.

The first self serve filling station was built in Winnipeg in 1949. At first, the concept was slow to take off: but a tipping point was reached during the 1980s. Now, it is the full service filling station which is the quirky oddity in a world filled with self serve. The customer is increasingly expected to do all parts of the transaction, even to the point of pre-paying at the pump to release the nozzle. These changes have made most filling stations into simple turnkey operations which require only a single attendant to oversee them.

In the United States, New Jersey and Oregon do not allow customers to handle the pump, and the town of Huntington in New York State has also banned self serve on the basis of saving jobs. These bans are frequently challenged in the name of constitutionality and reducing prices: yet prices did not fall when self serve took over.

For some time now, a fair number of for-profit foundations, causes, and even overtly for-profit companies have been shifting their labour pools to include more and more volunteers: some to the point that only their directors and a few core staff are still paid. In a few cases, the core staff are paid handsomely enough that the business would collapse were it ever forced to pay its volunteer component.

The Internet world was quick to adopt this unpaid labour model, most effectively wherever those who worked for the business could be taught to see themselves as a "community" and invest their labour into the interests of that "community". Even though their only reason for existence was their direct value to the company, the social ties in these communities did become real: but so did the amount of unpaid labour extracted from those communities in the name of a common cause. This pattern is far from unique to the Internet: but its effectiveness rises greatly when the company structure can bring together many isolated people, none of whom are employed directly by the company, who will never meet each other except through the company structure.

Curiously, the vast majority of this unpaid labour is directed toward what would be called marketing promotion, quality control, and customer service in a more conventional business model. In other words, this Internet model has successfully outsourced every single one of its most expensive elements to volunteerism by appealing to a sense of community -- which is allowed to exist only insofar as it remains desirable to the business bottom line. Elements of community which go off on a tangent from direct business benefit will be the first to be shut down. Elements of community which challenge the status quo will be tolerated only insofar as what is said provides some benefit to the community, if only that of a pressure releasing steam valve: any real potential for substantial change will be quickly shut down and their instigator banned from the community and the business. Should any other part of the community ever start to become too independent of the Internet company, the business will not hesitate to shut down the relevant parts of the structure which brought those people together in the first place.

Ideally, the community has so internalised company values by this point that it will actively band together of its own accord to support the company's actions, even where those actions demand yet more unpaid labour of its members. Having invested so much into the community already: what is another hour of unpaid time in the interests of the "community" (or ten, or a hundred)?

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