The Horror Of (Self) Servitude

I am possessing limited mobility. For the most part, I use the electric Amigo style carts when I go shopping. It is really hard for me to enjoy a spending adventure that starts with a ten-minute hobble from the parking lot, especially when I  push a cart the rest of my journey. I don’t do a lot of binge-shopping, preferring rather to go to a mega-store (like WalMart) where I can get everything I need in one trip, and deal with the problems of transferring the junk from my car to the apartment later. But it was not always the case.

Last millennium, shortly after the dinosaurs became extinct there were no 50 acre establishment providing every conceivable product a household might need (these days some stores have banks, restaurants, hair and nail salons, and even tax preparation services under the same roof). If you wanted meat for dinner, you went to the butcher. Fruit and vegetables came from the grocery store. If you needed oil for the car you went to the gas station (which, strangely enough today, only sold automotive things – oil, lamps and fuses, belts – and possibly candy bars, gum, and soda pop). Depending on who owned the store, you might be able to get beer and wine from the grocery, but liquor was definitely out of the question. The liquor store was your only choice there. Shoes from a shoe store, clothes at a clothing store (if you were near a Sears & Roebuck you could get both together but it was dependent on how large a town you were near). Drugs came from the drug store (who would have thought…). Bread, rolls, and cakes from the bakery, and so on.

Then the ice age ended and something called a Supermarket was created. This incorporated a meat counter, produce, vegetables, fruit, and pantry staples like canned goods and baking supplies. Suddenly grocery shopping became a manageable single trip rather than an all afternoon adventure. By going to the bigger store, you gained the ability to gather a larger selection of goods at the cost of a close relationship with the people behind the counter. At the meat market it was likely you knew the name of the person working since his name was on the sign. And quite likely he knew your name and how large a family you had, what your preferences were, and would be willing, nay happy, to provide you with a special cut of meat should you mention such a need. The shoe seller likely sold your parents shoes (and you when you were little) and was likely a cobbler as well, so he could resole your dress shoes to make them last another year or two. For a special occation, the pharmacy was likely the possessor of a soda fountain, so you could go in and get a cherry phosphate or chocolate soda in a paper cone glass. (No soft serve ice cream then, nor fast food anything.)

When you needed to refuel your car, you drove to the gas station and a bell rang as you pulled into the drive. Stopping beside the pump, a man would come up to your car and ask how he could help you. He would pump your fuel, wash your windows, check the oil level in you car (and offer to add a quart if you were low), and would make change for your purchase should you not have the right amount of money (no credit cards, ever…they didn’t exist!). All done with a smile, rain or snow, hot or cold. You never had to leave your car for all this service.

Time passes. I spend a year in California in the mid 1970’s and was exposed to Self-Serve gasoline for the first time. Funny, but the incentive for pumping your own gas was a seven cent per gallon discount (doesn’t sound like much today, but then it was about a twenty percent discount…say 60-70 cents today). It didn’t matter if you went to the cheapest off-brand station or the biggest conglomerate oil company’s brand. Get out of your car and you knocked off that discount. The explanation I heard at the time was the company could offer the reduced price because they didn’t have to pay the wages of an attendant to work the pumps like at a full-serve island. When returning to Michigan, I found there was NO price difference between full and self service stations. Guess who pumped my gas (especially in inclement weather)?

Today? I can only think of one (1) full serve station and that’s nearly 40 miles from here. In theory there are stations that will send an attendant out to assist people with handicaps, but there is a couple of things with these programs that trouble me. First, there is a button on the pump that calls for help. So, you still have to get out of the vehicle and go to the pump to call for someone to come and run the pump you are standing next to. Huh? Secondly (and more ominous) I have been told by clerks in several different stations that the buttons don’t do anything… no bells, whistles, klaxon horns, nothing. So mashing the “Call for Help” button only serves to remove the thin layer of dust from that small part of the pump. (And raises the effective blood pressure, aggravation level, and stress of the person struggling to get in and out of his or her car in the first place.)

But I can live with pumping my own gas. At least (most) stations have roofed over the pump islands so you are (mostly) out of the rain and snow while working on your car. Vastly more irritating are the mega-stores that have chosen to make checkout a do-it-yourself adventure. In the old days a store might have two or three checkout lanes, staffed by cheery clerks and baggers to haul your groceries to your car and to help load them into the trunk. Some of the larger stores I have wandered through might have thirty lanes or more, presumably to allow for efficient processing during holiday rushes. In the last ten years a third of these lanes have been converted to self-service or “fast lane” checkout centers.

The principle reason is cost reduction. A single clerk can stand at a kiosk standing at the end of a dozen of these robot tellers and attend to errors as needed. this results in eleven less clerks working than if a warm-bodied person filled each slot.  And the savings is greater during times of slack, where two or three isles are needed continuously but the other eight might not do enough business to cover a clerk’s expenses for the entire shift. So for the business it makes cents sense.

Not so much for the purchaser. For my part, I refuse to use these abominations for two reasons. The typical store is decidedly not user-friendly for shoppers using these Amigo contraptions supplied. The top two or three shelves are not reachable while seated, and frozen foods, canned beverages, and dairy products stored behind glass-fronted doors are a wistful dream away. Occasionally a kind stranger will fetch a product from the distant lands, but many a traveler has returned sadder and poorer for the lack of a carton of MooseTracks. Once my trip is nearly finished I am confronted by the design failure of these conveyor belt driven product scattering machines. They are too high to use easily (it’s hard enough to just haul a 4 kilo bag of potatoes from over the steering handles at the front of the cart and swinging it onto the standard lane: bend, lift, twist actions of the back are OK in singular, doing all at once is the prescription for serious injury). They are simply not fun to use.

A more important reason for me to decline to use these lanes is the one mentioned above in gas stations: no employee wages being spent. In essence, by using these devices you agree to become an unpaid employee of the store for the ten minutes you are ringing and bagging your own purchases. If you assume a wage of twelve dollars an hour, you have effectively saved the company two dollars they would have had to pay someone (actually, considerably more than $2 when you factor in all the added expenses like payroll taxes and unemployment insurance, probably closer to $3 when it’s all said and done). Most of my working life I feel I’ve been underpaid for the amount of work I’ve done, but to volunteer to be giving my wages directly to my “employer” seems wrong on so many levels.

So I end up waiting in the line that sells cigarettes for 45 minutes to checkout my ten items…


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