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Short-Changed by Self-Service

Consumers aren't getting a cut of the cost savings reaped by retailers.

June 08, 2002|DONALD L. POTTER | Donald L. Potter is chief executive of an advertising, marketing and media agency in the NoHo Arts District.

American consumers are being shortchanged again. A scarcity of personal time and a need for instant gratification have created an apparent willingness to settle for less as long as our consumer transactions are done quickly. As a result, the better life we expect from the goods and services we purchase is being dramatically devalued.

You need go no further than my local supermarket.

Where two checkout stands once stood there are now four computerized scan and bag-your-own checkout lines. One clerk supervises these new "express" lanes and, of course, no bagger is necessary.

Many shoppers are using the new lanes, or trying to use them. But because the average person has never run a cash register, there are lots of problems to overcome.

This is taking the self-service concept too far. Especially since the store offers no discount to shoppers who are taking over the job of an employee.

How have Americans strayed from making decisions based on individual wants and needs to being herded into a mass of passive consumers?

One of the first instances was the gas shortage created by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Gas prices soared, and to keep costs down, service stations introduced self-service gas. That meant no washing of the windows, looking under the hood or checking the air in the tires.

Pumping our own gas became a way of life, which we accepted because we believed that it saved us money. Yet less than 30 years later, fuel prices are near an all-time high. The only savings were what the station operators realized when they reduced the size of their work forces.

Then came the automated teller machine. The introduction of this technology was heralded as a blessing for bank customers. No wait for tellers, 24-hour availability and more locations were the major benefits the banks touted.

Of course, they didn't tell us that the inside staff was going to be cut, which meant less service for those of us who needed more than a fast $100 in cash. Now we get charged for not having minimum balances or for writing too many checks. Where was the consumer outcry?

We can't return to wipe-your-windows service stations or the days of plentiful, helpful bank tellers. But we can stop the supermarkets from putting us to work without pay. If we check out and bag our own groceries, shouldn't there be a discount in the price of the products we buy?

After all, the club stores provide you with a substantial discount for buying in bulk, standing in line for an eternity and finding boxes to pack your stuff in. It's a fair deal. What I encountered at my local market isn't.

Scanning and packing your own groceries may appear to be convenient, fun and the wave of the future. But to me it's just one more service that is being taken away.

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