Pay­ing the price for self-ser­vice

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic Re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­

The check-in area in the Hal­i­fax air­port is a gleam­ing ex­am­ple of the won­der of wasted space. The build­ing arches up, fronted with two storeys of glass, while the vast ex­panse of stone floor waits for the echo­ing tap of hard-soled shoes. In the huge open space, the ranks of self-ser­vice ma­chines stand like lonely cadets in rows.

You get your own board­ing pass, tag your own bags, lug those bags to the con­veyor belt and feed them in, while a hand­ful of air­line staff wan­der the open space war­ily, like gazelle ex­pect­ing li­ons. In all, two WestJet staffers are there to help out, in­stead of the col­lec­tion of coun­ters and staff there used to be. And they’re not the only en­dan­gered species.

Many ho­tels now of­fer small loy­alty points re­wards if you “go green” and “limit your en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print.” I’ve never been keen on clean tow­els ev­ery day, and I don’t need staff to make my bed. But it oc­curs to me that if enough peo­ple take the points and es­chew the daily room clean­ing, well, the ho­tel will be able to cut back a shift or two of the peo­ple who clean rooms — just the way the banks cut back hugely on tell­ers once bank­ing ma­chines (and their “con­ve­nience fees,” a.k.a. con­ve­nient prof­its for banks) started pick­ing up the ma­jor­ity of bank­ing trans­ac­tions. You took over the ser­vice, the banks kept the sav­ings on staff — and then charged you for that priv­i­lege.

As you vol­un­tar­ily pick up the work that oth­ers used to do, the costs you pay for the ser­vice don’t drop, while the costs of pro­vid­ing it to you do.

Now, it’s self-serve gas pumps and self-serve gro­cery check­outs.

In­stead of six cashiers check­ing peo­ple’s gro­ceries, there’s one cashier over­see­ing six self­serve ter­mi­nals. That’s a sav­ings of five staff for the gro­cery store, but not much of a sav­ings for you. Chances are, your help­ful use of a self-serve checkup does not au­to­mat­i­cally re­ward you with cheaper gro­ceries.

Now, they’re not the best jobs in the world, but here’s a ques­tion: are we all just co-op­er­at­ing in a great de-staffing? Af­ter all, the big­gest costs in al­most all busi­nesses are wages and benefits. If you can in­stall a piece of hard­ware that gets rid of the peo­ple, all you have to do is to wait the few years it takes to pay for the equip­ment and then all those for­mer wages are gravy. (And, un­der our ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment, you can prob­a­bly claim a hefty tax break for the ex­pense of up­grad­ing your equip­ment — “mod­ern­iz­ing” — as well.)

Even min­i­mum-wage jobs con­trib­ute to the econ­omy. The money that low-wage earn­ers make goes al­most ex­clu­sively back into the mar­ket­place; they sim­ply don’t have the abil­ity to tuck aside sav­ings for re­tire­ment or any­thing else.

You can, of course, ar­gue that you’d rather serve your­self — that you don’t want to talk to a teller or a cashier or a clerk.

But maybe you should be think­ing of it an­other way: if you’re now agree­ing to do the work that the store or air­line used to do for you, shouldn’t you be get­ting cash off your ticket or ser­vice be­cause the you’re help­ing the air­line cut costs? No? You think min­i­mum wage is bad?

Heck, you’re agree­ing to work for that com­pany for free.

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