How should we think of self service? Is it good for society in any sense or is it stealthy way to increase costs for customers? An article in today’s New York Times argues for the second point (Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work, Oct 30). The opening paragraph sets the tone:
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.
In the eyes of the article’s author, the lawyer has been co-opted into a dubious labor deal.
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. …
To do the work requires extra jobs, like commuting. The commuter often has to own, insure, maintain and fuel a car — and drive it — just to get to work and back. These unpaid activities ancillary to earning one’s wages are examples of shadow work. …
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. Airports now have self-service check-in kiosks that allow travelers to perform the jobs of ticket agents. Travel agents once unearthed, perused and compared fares, deals and hotel rates. Shadow-working travelers now do all of this themselves on their computer screens. Medical patients are now better informed than ever — as a result of hours of online shadow work.
If you have read this blog for a while, you may already be able to guess that I may not completely agree with the above analysis. Indeed, I generally prefer self-service options. That, of course, is my preference. However, I have to think that self-service makes many people’s lives better off whether or not one wants to worry about shadow work.
One flaw with the shadow work argument is that it implicitly assumes that full service is costless. That, say, sitting with a travel agent trying to trade off the cost, convenience, and luxury of an itinerary is painless. That there is no psychic penalty in the embarrassment of having to admit that you knew you couldn’t afford this trip from the moment the airfare was mentioned. Or at the other end of the economic spectrum, there is no hassle cost in having to conform your schedule to the availability of the agent or having to manage an agent whose compensation is increasing in how much they can get you to spend.
Services involve co-production. It takes effort from both the service provider and the customer to have a successful outcome. This is particularly true when the provider has better knowledge of possible options and their costs while customers may have wildly varying preferences. Self-service (which in such settings means access to data and a decent user interface) levels the informational playing field and helps customers.
A second consideration is whether the service would be offered without a self-service option. Take the lawyer checking herself out at night. How many grocery stores would have extended hours if it were not possible to offer acceptable service with lean staffing? If you want an analog, it would be tremendously convenient to be able to pick up dry cleaning at 9:00PM on the way home from a late night at the office. But most mom-and-pop dry cleaners simply cannot offer that service. Fetching the pressed suit and starched shirts as well as taking the payment at most dry cleaners requires a person and it becomes cost-prohibitive to have one employee staying till, say, 10:00PM to process a handful of transactions. If you want to offer extended pick up times, as P&G’s Tide Dry Cleaners do, you gotta offer self service.
Self service allows extended hours and lots of capacity and that generally benefits society. There would be no gas stations with 12 pumps open 24 hours a day if they could not be run by a single employee in a secure enclosure. Self service may impose shadow work, but it also offers convenience.
A final point: The market has spoken on this. If customers really valued the personal touch in getting their gas pumped or in receiving their boarding pass, someone would offer it. More accurately, if customers were willing to pay for the personal touch, someone would offer it. I know of one Shell station in Evanston that still offers full-service gas. The prices on even their self-service options are 20 cents higher than the competition and they have limited hours. That is what the market supports. Most of us would rather save the 20 cents a gallon then take extra time and pay a premium to have someone else’s hands smell of gas. In the airline industry, no one advertises that they make it easy to make eye contact with an agent when you check in for a flight. Many of us might want that but very few of us are willing to pay for it.