Perhaps it all began with self-service gasoline pumps. When I got my first driving license on my sixteenth birthday in Dayton, Ohio (after passing the driving test, the clerk said that I was a fast learner, and I replied that at least I had waited until that afternoon), there was no such thing as self-service gasoline -- instead, there were employees called gas station attendants, who pumped your gas, checked your oil, wiped your windshield, and if you wished would check the air in your tires and empty any litter in your ashtrays. This was an entry-level job for many teenagers, and it helped to develop such good work habits as getting there on time, being polite to customers, and carrying out assignments. Motorists even developed relationships with their favorite attendant, such as my high school friend Gordon who would ask young women if he could check under their hood.
By the 1970s, though, all of this had changed, with the advent of self-service gas stations, which gradually emerged from giant corporations such as Shell and Esso (now Exxon), and spread throughout the nation rapidly, fueled (pardon the pun) by lower gas prices at self-serve pumps. At that time, and even at a few stations today, motorists had a choice of paying a few cents extra per gallon for an attended pump, or paying less for self-serve. You can guess, correctly, that more and more drivers chose the self-serve system, not only for lower prices but also because of shorter waiting times since they did not have to wait for an attendant to get free -- it took time to clean those windshields and check tires.
Fast-forward to our Brave New Century, and you will find ever-increasing use of self-scan checkouts at supermarkets all over America, and now commonly in Europe too. The big supermarket chains have pioneered these checkouts, often offering specials at lower prices which are only available to customers using self-serve, plus other incentives such as special cloth shopping bags given out gratis when a customer signs up for self-serve, or tries it for the first time. In some markets, special portable scanners allow customers to keep track of what they have spent on groceries and other items as they go.
All of this sounds very sensible and convenient, and of course we all know that choice is a good thing, is it not? And of course nobody is forced to use self-scanning -- at least not yet, unless you consider the considerably-longer lines at the fewer-and-fewer remaining human checkouts to be a pressure tactic to encourage more-and-more self-scanning. Still, one is led to wonder what motivates supermarkets to invest in all of that self-scanning equipment -- might it conceivably be a desire to eliminate entry-level checkout jobs and thus cut supermarket costs? (Although the practice may create a few IT-type jobs at the corporate level, those are no substitute for the inevitable job losses.)
While I have yet to see any study on these practices, I have seen fewer-and-fewer staffed checkouts at supermarkets all over America -- particularly during low-volume hours such as early in the morning or late at night, when often only one staffed checkout will be open. And, considering the tens of thousands of supermarkets across the United States, even if only one checkout job were being eliminated per supermarket, that is tens of thousands of entry-level jobs gone, probably forever. And that is just the tip of the self-serve iceberg!
For some years, there have been restaurants with automated ordering equipment such as a touch-sensitive menu built into your table, so you can order with no human contact at all. As far as I know, your food is usually still brought by a server -- but I have seen a sushi restaurant at Heathrow Airport in London where food options move along a conveyer, and customers just remove their chosen sushi and pay for whatever they ate at the register upon leaving. At least, that register still has some live person taking your money, but for how much longer? Such practices will undoubtedly become more and more pervasive.
What virtually all of this self-serve stuff has in common is that it inevitably costs entry-level jobs. Those gas station attendants are gone, there are fewer and fewer supermarket cashiers -- and as these practices spread, there will be fewer and fewer comparable jobs in other retail industries. After all, why stop at gas stations and supermarkets -- nearly every routine job can be automated, and thus eliminated. The Beat Goes On, as the song says.
Still, a determined opposition to the growth in self-service options is likely to slow that growth, and also slow the loss of vital entry-level jobs in the economy.The next target area for self-serve to replace human cashiers and check-out staff is most likely to be the giant general-merchandise stores such as Walmart and Target. Walmart is a natural for this, since it already has a major supermarket operation with self scanning of food and related items, so why not move on to merchandise in general? Indeed, this may already have occurred, but just not at our own local Walmart.
Probably the best that opponents of this growing trend can do is to oppose vigorously and forcefully any new incursions of the practice into our stores and daily lives. Such opposition should include letters to the editor, contacts with store managers and corporate-level staff, and Op Eds like this one. After all, the jobs you are trying to save may be your own -- or those of your own children, or relatives, or friends. Self-serve has its place, but that place should not include the needless and heedless destruction of one vital sector of our economy.