More and more these days the regular acts of a consumer seem to be: find it yourself, read your own meter, enter your details online *YOU LEFT OUT SOME DETAILS!*, key the number into your telephone keyboard, say the digits after the beep, do it yourself, press the hash key, pack the goods yourself, pay via an automated service and withdraw via one too.
What I am trying to say is that, increasingly, our modes of consumption, are unmediated by a human being. We commune only with the product or service and some kind of computerised device. I could nearly, if I wanted, run my whole consumer life without speaking to another human being, ever.
In fact, I might try it, for a week and see what becomes of me. It would mean self-service at the supermarket, pay-at-the-pump petrol. It would mean online shopping and online bill payments. No act of consumption would be sullied by an interaction with a third party… Now, I know that this is sold to us as a more convenient way of managing our own affairs, but the truth is, it is far cheaper for the merchant. Get the mug punter to most of the work themselves and voilà – it improves our profit margins. Don’t think it will be left at that either; apparently some ticket agencies are now charging customers, who have bought tickets online, an additional cost to print off their own tickets at home… By that brass-necked reckoning, it’s not going to be long before we are charged an entrance fee to the supermarket. Has anyone noticed how their vaunted free delivery became more and more expensive over the years, with ‘premium ‘ time slots?
Anyway, that’s not really what gets on my nerves, not really. I don’t hark back fondly to the day’s of ‘Are You Being Served’. What annoys me is that when a business model is predicated on a consumer being left to their own devices for the bulk of the transaction because something seems to go badly wrong in the psyche: both in mine (the consumer) and in theirs (the staff). I can only liken it to when I worked in a shop and we had a quiet day – if a customer came in late in the day we had become totally inured to doing nothing at all and the instant feeling was one of irritation or outrage. Sort of, ‘here is a customer actually expecting my help… the nerve!’
I had to buy shoes for the children today. I went to a shop where the stock room is the shop. You find your own size. This makes a whole heap of mess because customers tend to rip out the paper stuffing from the boxes and not put the lids back on properly and make the stacks of boxes all look very raggedy indeed. The staff’s main job then seems to be going along behind the customer (probably on about an hour or two’s time lag) and restacking the boxes in the stock room/shop floor. Usually they are to be found up 10 feet high ladders shuffling the boxes. You would need a loudhaler to attract their attention, or a distress flare. Anyway, my daughter found a pair of boots that suited in a size 1 box. Unfortunately, there were two right feet in the box and one was a size 2 as well. There were no more size 1s in size 1 boxes and no more size 1s that had escaped into other boxes. So we tried a different style – right size – but only one in the box. The staff did not care and stacked the useless boxes neatly back with their contents of one boot, odd boots, unmatching sizes and two left feet for the next unsuspecting size 1 customer to have a complete headfuck over. I know the staff don’t care about the shoes or the customer because their job is stacking boxes and climbing ladders, not serving customers. I don’t blame them, it’s the culture of the model. it’s just that the whole self-service thing taken to extremes dehumanises us all. It reminds me of that band called ‘Pop will Eat Itself’ – so will consumers, in the end.
Some of us will nibble off our toes behind a mountain of size one boots (left feet only). Some of us will poke out our eyeballs when the machine shouts ‘UNEXPECTED ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA’. At least one person is going to saw off their hand when the machine says ‘Sorry, we didn’t understand that’ after they have been on hold for half an hour and I was nearly forced to cut out my tongue earlier when I had broken the automated system and got through to some kind of Stepford Call Centre worker who could only Speak From The Script.
It’s creeping up on us (if you are a modern global consumer) and you’d better watch out. Excessive consumption should come with a health warning, along the lines of, ‘Depersonalised consumption carries the risk of cannibalising one’s soul’. Here’s a more academic article on a related theme. Personally, I feel better for getting all that off my chest. But I am still trapped.